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Pakistan suspends news channel Geo over spy agency row

Geo News had locked horns with the ISI after a prominent anchor of the television channel was attacked by gunmen in Karachi in April.

A viewer in Islamabad  looks at a television screen flashing a suspension of service notice on the GEO News channel on June 6, 2014.  B K Bangash / AP Photo
A viewer in Islamabad looks at a television screen flashing a suspension of service notice on the GEO News channel on June 6, 2014. B K Bangash / AP Photo

ISLAMABAD // Pakistan’s popular television channel was taken off the air on Friday, the latest twist in a bitter row between Geo News and Islamabad’s top spy agency over the shooting of a leading journalist.

The government’s media regulatory body said the station’s licence was being suspended for 15 days and it would have to pay a fine of 10 million rupees (Dh373,000).

Observers will view the decision, which the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) said was “unanimous”, as a blow to freedom of expression as the powerful army clamps down on critical coverage.

The News, a publication of the Jang Media Group, which also owns Geo News, reported on Friday that the station and its owners were suing Pemra, the defence ministry and Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) “for defaming and maligning the group” by accusing it of working on “an anti-Pakistan agenda”.

The standoff over Geo has exposed divisions between the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and the army, which has ruled the country for more than half of its history.

The military has long seen the government’s resistance to efforts to shut Geo News as a sign of defiance and Pemra’s latest move is seen as a compromise solution after weeks of tension.

Geo News had locked horns with the ISI after a prominent anchor of the television channel was attacked in the volatile port city of Karachi in April.

Hamid Mir was shot three times but survived, with his family blaming the chief of the ISI, General Zaheer ul Islam, for the attempted murder.

Mir’s brother, Amir Mir, said Hamid had told him before the attack that he felt threatened and if anything happened to him the ISI chief “would be responsible”.

Geo News broadcast images of Gen Islam along with the Mir family allegations for eight hours, infuriating the military which filed a complaint to Pemra seeking the channel’s closure.

Mir has criticised the country’s powerful intelligence agencies and military for their alleged role in the abduction of thousands of people in the restive south-western province of Baluchistan.

Many journalists from the Jang Media Group have reported receiving threats and being harassed following the row.

A regional editor of Jang newspaper, the group’s Urdu daily, was severely beaten in Multan on Monday after leaving his office.

Geo News is also facing the wrath of the religious community for airing a song-and-dance routine on a breakfast show aired in May which clerics said was blasphemous and defamed Islam.

The media group subsequently apologised over both issues, a move that was apparently enough to save it from closure but not suspension.

A former Pakistani information minister, Javed Jabbar, described the decision as “extreme”.

“It was an unfair outburst on a major institution of the country, however, the reaction was very extreme,” he said.

“I hope that the Jang/Geo group appeal to the higher courts and Supreme Court and ask for a fair process.”

Pakistan began awarding licences to private channels in 2002, leading to a media boom and a sharp rise in critical reporting.

But while the media has been relatively free to report on the country’s political parties, the all-powerful army remains a sensitive topic.

Mir’s case has been compared to the case of Saleem Shahzad, who was found dead near the capital Islamabad in 2011 after writing about links between the Pakistani military and Al Qaeda

Rights groups have called Pakistan one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists.

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said seven reporters lost their lives in Pakistan last year.

* Agence France-Presse with aditional reporting by Reuters and Bloomberg News