Within one week, the fortunes of Geo TV, Pakistan’s largest news channel, have been turned upside down. From being the market leader by far in terms of ratings, today it is fighting for its survival, as the Pakistan government – pushed on by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), wants its broadcast licence to be cancelled.
What Geo did last week is unheard of. It named the country’s ISI chief Lt General Zaheerul Islam as the man possibly behind an attack on their most prominent news anchor Hamid Mir, whose car was ambushed as it left the Karachi airport by unidentified persons on motorbikes.
Mir survived the attack but his statement that if anything happened to him, the ISI chief should be held accountable, was broadcast on Geo TV within 40 minutes of the attack.
Till today, Geo TV has not apologised for its statement. There has been much damage control, but on Friday last, Mir made another statement that was read out by his brother Amir Mir from hospital. Mir likened the present situation to when his channel rose up against president Musharraf’s military government.
“Even then, we faced a big challenge but by the grace of God, we emerged victorious.” Mir said the ISI was upset with him for reporting on the plight of Pakistan’s missing persons from Balochistan – where thousands of men have gone missing over the past five years as security agencies try to quell a full blown insurgency.
Mir’s programme Capital Talk is one of the highest rated in the industry. He is a household name and no stranger to controversy. His first claim to fame was when as a freelancer, he sold an interview he took of Osama Bin Ladin to the conservative and highly respected Daily Dawn newspaper in which Ladin claimed he had access to nuclear weapons. The interview created a furore, and the paper’s editor was sacked soon after for letting such a misleading piece go into print. At the time it was alleged that Mir worked at the behest of the ISI. Now, it seems the tables have turned.
The ISI has come down strong on the allegations. Agency officials have visited not only the Jang Group headquarters in Karachi but have also met proprietor Mir Shakil ur Rehman, who lives in Dubai. They have also ensured that both the transmission of Geo, and the distribution of sister publications Daily Jang, which is Pakistan’s largest circulated daily, and The News, its English language equivalent are stopped in cantonment areas.
Not to be outdone, other media houses have taken up the fight at the behest of the ISI. Most notable is the Express Group, which is the second largest group in terms of print. The Group has launched a drive to “cleanse the country of anti-state media” as stated in its editorial that appeared in the Roznama Express newspaper. Following closely are other smaller media houses including ARY News, which seem to be using the opportunity to curry favour with the ISI.
“Geo crossed the line with its unsubstantiated attack,” says Commander Najeeb, a retired officer. He, along with Major Muhammad Arif, another retired army man, are amongst thousands who have started a campaign on social media to boycott anti-state media.
Not to be outdone, politicians are following suit. On Friday, Imran Khan told a party convention that Geo put commercial considerations above national interest. “They sold out,” he said. And his attack was more towards India as Geo and its parent body, the Jang Group, has been involved in the Aman-ki-Asha initiative from this side of the border.