Forty days and counting. That’s how long Geo News, Pakistan’s largest private news channel has been off the air. In an unprecedented stand off between the Jang group, owners of the channel and the government, cable channel operators have been forced not to air the channel as part of President Pervez Musharraf’s efforts to muzzle the broadcast media.
Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, who heads this family-owned business, has estimated his losses to exceed Rs1 billion in unearned revenues. On Thursday, the group filed a civil petition for leave to appeal in the Supreme Court of Pakistan against the dismissal by the Sindh High Court (SHC) on December 4 of applications challenging closure of the Geo Television Network transmission.
Lawyers of the Jang Group content that because of the ban on transmission of the network inside the country, the company is facing losses worth millions of rupees and the future of 4,500 employees is in question.
Companies have reportedly been forced by the government not only to stop placing their advertisements with Geo but also the Daily Jang, the country's largest circulated Urdu daily, and its sister English daily, The News.
At the centre of the crisis is a new code of conduct that the government wants all TV channels to sign. It contains blanket restrictions on the channels in terms of reporting on the president, the prime minister, the army and issues that are “against national interest”.
The government is miffed over the live coverage of events by Geo and other broadcast media, especially of the judicial crisis and the sacking of the chief justice.
“The media laws are yet another attempt to stifle the press under the guise of national interest. But this is nothing new. It has happened several times before,” comments Shamim-ur Rehman, who heads the Karachi Union of Journalists.
Government officials deny this. They say that the broadcast media had gone overboard in trying to show live footage of incidents of terror. “They were glorifying terrorism,” a senior official said in Islamabad.
(President Musharraf also said recently that the media needed to be restrained when it came to reporting terrorist incidents because terror organisations were taking advantage of the publicity they were getting).
But opponents of the government restrictions argue that these conditions are unprecedented and unfair. “They go against the spirit of free press,” a spokesman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said.
What makes the battle harder for Geo TV is that other TV channels, including Dawn News, which is owned by another independent media house, have signed on the dotted line. “Geo and Jang group remain the only ones that have stood up,” Ghazi Salahuddin, a political commentator, says
As the test of wills continues, Pakistanis are being deprived of their most watched TV channel. “My life is incomplete without watching Geo TV,” comments Muhammad Mustafa, who wrote on a Pakistan-based blog. Around I.I. Chundrigar Road, where the Jang group’s offices are in Karachi, there is talk of coming to some understanding.
Media reports, however, suggest the government is not content with asking Geo to pull off some programmes; it wants some journalists not only in Geo but also at The News sacked.