Most media cable operators in Pakistan have taken down the country's biggest private TV channel, Geo, amid the media group's bitter row with the Islamic Republic's powerful spy agency, the ISI.
The row between Pakistan's largest commercial media group, the Jang Group of Publications, and the country's ubiquitous military is getting uglier by the day. After the Pakistani army accused the group - particularly its popular TV channel, Geo - of defaming its spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), a blasphemy case has now been filed against the station.
Historically, both Geo TV and its mother organization have been close to the Islamic Republic's powerful security establishment. Though the Jang Group had recently been critical in its reporting of the Pakistani army, no one expected an all-out war between the two until Hamid Mir, a renowned Geo TV anchor and journalist, was shot in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi on April 19. Both Mir and his brother, a fellow journalist, subsequently accused the ISI and its chief Zaheerul Islam of carrying out the assassination attempt. Geo TV itself came out and publicly endorsed the journalists' claims.
Mir had been critical of the country's intelligence agencies and military for their alleged role in the kidnappings of thousands of people in the country's western province of Balochistan. As a result, Mir's aides believe the journalist's stance had irked the ISI.
Last week, the situation became even more volatile after religious extremists accused the station of broadcasting blasphemous material. Geo TV is Pakistan's most viewed commercial TV station. According to a Gallup TV Ratings Service report, the channel had seven million cable and satellite viewers in May 2013. In comparison, the state-owned channel, Pakistan Television (PTV), had only 1.5 million viewers.
Rights organizations believe the Pakistani military wants to punish Geo TV for its critical reporting on the ISI, and that the blasphemy issue, too, has been orchestrated to harm the channel and its leaders.
Blasphemy, or the insult of Prophet Mohammad, is a sensitive topic in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where 97 percent of its 180 million people are Muslims. Rights activist have long demanded the reforms of the controversial blasphemy laws, which were introduced by the Islamic military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s, but to no avail.
A divisive decision
Following the blasphemy accusation, three members of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) cancelled Geo TV's license on May 21 and ordered that the channels offices be sealed. Although the decision was later revoked by other members of the organization, most cable operators across Pakistan have decided to take down the channel.
While some Pakistanis expressed shock over the channel's suspension, some welcomed the move. "This is one of the darkest days for press freedom in Pakistan," wrote one viewer on Twitter.
"Congratulations! Finally the voice of masses has been heard. Geo's license has been suspended!" Naz Baloch, member of the conservative Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf party, wrote on Facebook. The religious right-wing and supporters of the army call Geo TV "traitor" which has "no regard for national interests."
Punishing Geo TV?
Pakistan's liberal sections and rights activists consider the attempt on Mir's life and the campaign against Geo TV to be part of the powerful security service's coercive methods to muzzle the media and silence opposition.
At the same time, rival media groups of Geo TV have started running shows which portray the ISI in a positive light. Islamabad-based journalist, Abdul Sattar, says that the real issue is not whether Geo TV has committed blasphemy or not.
"The military does not like that independent media channels in Pakistan now criticize them and hold them accountable for their abuse of power," Sattar told DW, adding that the Pakistani military generals are also unhappy with Geo TV's "friendly" attitude towards the country's arch-rival India.
"The army thinks that an action against Geo TV is necessary to teach a lesson to independent journalists," the journalist added.
Activists say the blasphemy law is often used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas in Pakistan
Pakistan's independent Human Rights Commission (HRCP) said in a statement last week that it could no longer stay silent on "the malicious campaign unleashed against Geo and the manner in which pressure is being exerted to close down the channel."
"Irrespective of what the HRCP or anyone else might think about Geo's editorial judgment, instigating people to come out on the street following charges of blasphemy is an extremely dangerous trend," the rights group said.
"The organization must point out that the environment of fear that has been created is making the lives of journalists working for Geo extremely vulnerable. They are being intimidated and a large number of them have faced attacks," the organization added.
In light of this development, Sattar is of the view that all journalists should stand by Geo TV and put aside their differences to safeguard the freedom of press in the South Asian nation.
Ethics and independence
But not all Pakistani journalists agree with Sattar. TV anchor Arsalan Khalid believes it was highly irresponsible on the part of Geo TV to accuse the ISI. "The Pakistani constitution clearly says the country's armed forces and secret services cannot be blamed for such crimes. It is true that people criticize the ISI more often than before, but what we saw on April 19 was a news channel running shows for eight hours maligning the ISI," Khalid told DW from Islamabad.
Faheem Siddiqui, a creative manager at an advertising agency in Islamabad, is not in favor of banning the channel or cancelling its license, but says Geo TV should be "punished for ridiculing the ISI in public." "It is not objectionable to criticize national institutes, but it is totally wrong to defame them," Siddiqui told DW, adding that members of the Pakistani media had been "misusing" its freedom. "Only when the media crosses its boundaries, does the government and the military take action."
Geo TV flashed pictures of the ISI chief, Zaheerul Islam, while accusing him of Mir's murder attempt
However, Siddiqui denies that the recent blasphemy issue has anything to do with Geo TV's rift with the ISI. "The TV station has offended many people by airing a blasphemous show. The head of the channel should have personally apologized to the nation."
But many agree that the freedom of Pakistan's press is at stake, and that those who are demanding greater control of the media are directly or indirectly trying to protect the ISI and its alleged crimes.
"The struggle to report independently and objectively will continue," said Nasir Tufail, a senior producer at the private news channel, Geo TV. "What we have achieved is the result of our decades-long battle against suppression, and our longing for freedom."