Geo TV is back on air, but Pak media far from free or fair

Staffers across the Jang Group have been given specific instructions on how to report on certain issues and personalities.

world Updated: Apr 21, 2018 21:41 IST
Imtiaz Ahmad
Imtiaz Ahmad
Hindustan Times, Islamabad
Pakistan press freedom,GEO News,Jang Group
An employee works at the control room of the Geo News television channel in Karachi.(REUTERS)

With the gradual resumption of the transmission of Geo News, Pakistan’s most popular news channel, on cable networks across the country, what is becoming clear is that the country’s media will be unable to report the forthcoming general election in a free and fair manner.

Geo News came back on air after an apparent understanding with the military whereby the channel, part of the behemoth Jang Group, has committed to abiding by a list of dos and don’ts.

While the Geo management has denied any such list was given by the military, staffers across the Jang Group, which includes widely read newspapers such as the Jang in Urdu and The News in English, have been given specific instructions on how to report on certain issues and personalities.

While cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, for long perceived as close to the military establishment, is to be shown in a positive light, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his ruling PML-N party cannot be glorified.

The judiciary too has to be portrayed positively while the military and its activities or operations cannot be criticised, according to people familiar with the deal between Jang Group and the military.

More importantly, there can be no insinuation of any collusion between the army high command and Pakistan’s chief justice. The list also bans any mention of the situation in restive Balochistan province, or the activities of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) or its leaders. The PTM’s large protests to safeguard the rights of Pashtuns have received scant coverage on Pakistani news channels.

“By and large, this list is an indicator of what to cover and what not to cover in the coming days,” said a staffer at The News, the English language daily that is a sister organisation of Geo News.

The staffer recalled a meeting between leading anchors and TV personalities with the Pakistan Army chief, General Qamar Bajwa, some weeks back. “The army chief categorically said that he had ordered Geo to be shut down because it had crossed a line,” said the staffer. “And the message was to all TV channels to toe the line or risk closure.”

Pakistan’s journalist community is deeply divided, with unions too further split into several factions. None protested the treatment meted out to Geo News because of the pressures they face from the army.

“We are always under threat,” said GM Jamali, who heads a faction of the Karachi Union of Journalists. Jamali said there is no unity among journalists, as was seen in the past when military dictator Zia-ul-Haq was leading Pakistan. “Now it’s everyone for himself. Most journalists do what their office tells them.”

With more than 100 channels in operation across the country, of which more than 40 are news channels, competition for advertising revenue is stiff. And elections are the time when most revenue comes through for channels.

Marketing executives at media houses said their income rises several times over during the election season. Given this, a closure of a channel “would spell disaster”, said Azfar Azeemi, a marketing executive.

Most news reports that are critical of the military are no longer beamed by most news channels or carried by many newspapers in Pakistan. This now also includes stories that are in any way critical of the judiciary.

Last week, comments made by Nawaz Sharif against the composition of a judicial committee were censored by most news channels, which feared action from the over-zealous Chief Justice Saqib Nisar.

With a literacy rate of less than 30%, most Pakistanis turn to the broadcast media for news and entertainment. In the past, news channels – particularly Geo News, played an important role during election time.

This time, however, most channels are expected to remain compliant with what the military wants reported. There are fears that the elections will be engineered in a way to bring Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party to power through a coalition arrangement.

Many journalists feel that if the media is allowed to report accurately, this will not happen, as was the case in the past. “This time, I feel, they will get away with it,” leading journalist Ghazi Salahuddin told a recent seminar on media freedom.

First Published: Apr 21, 2018 21:40 IST