Geo TV went off air last night, accepting a Pemra directive though disagreeing with it. But it raises serious questions about how laws are framed and implemented. In what form of democracy is the accused sentenced and punished without even being given a chance to present a defence? That is exactly what Pemra has done by suspending Geo News’ licence for 15 days and fining it Rs10 million. While virtually the entire political leadership of the country, from the president and the prime minister to MNAs and others, as well as politicians from across the political spectrum, have spoken against a ban on any channel, just such a ban has been slapped. The ‘crime’ that apparently warrants this kind of punishment is making the military unhappy, although holding the powerful accountable is the primary job of a free media. To call it a 15-day suspension, even though that is excessive in itself, is misleading. Not only Geo News but all its sister channels unconnected with political coverage have been off the air in most of the country for the last 45 days, with cable operators obviously having been pressurised to force illegal orders of unauthorised persons.Pemra on the whole deserves its share of the blame for this blatantly illegal action since some rogue members held illegal meetings and decided to cancel Geo’s licence even though they did not have the authority to do any such thing. The Supreme Court ordered the restoration of Geo but was met only with silence. Should the leadership of Pemra now be charged with contempt of court for disrespecting the judiciary by failing to obey its instructions? The Rs10 million fine – again as excessive as the suspension – is insignificant in comparison to the losses Geo has had to suffer because of the wrath of the military and Pemra’s indulgence of illegal actions. An estimated Rs2 billion has already been lost, money that should be paid to Geo in damages, as a lawsuit filed by the group is now demanding.
The 45-day ban, extended by 15 days, will mean Geo remains off air for 60 days. Yes, it has survived before – bouncing back from the 90-day black-out imposed by the Musharraf regime. Yes, a legal notice has been served on the ISI, Pemra and the Ministry of Defence for maligning the channel, accusing it of working on an ‘anti-Pakistan’ agenda and making other allegations. Rs50 billion has been sought in damages. But, in real terms, the knife has already been struck into the body of the country’s most popular channel. It is now being twisted a little more. We have essentially been abandoned, with the government failing to protect media freedoms. Monetary losses threaten jobs and the future of the channel. We see an open attempt to weaken us, drain us of blood and leave us with no means to fight back. Geo’s perspective was not even heard by Pemra. The pressure put on the Jang Group has not just been financial. There has also been literal spilling of blood. Staffers of the group have suffered unprecedented harassment and intimidation with attacks on senior Geo and Jang journalists. Our people have been wounded, deliberately targeted, hunted down like animals, and we do not know what may come next. Arson became a popular way of registering anger with the group. The attacks on our Group’s vehicles across the country also continue. Through it all, at no time did the military call for calm. Instead it has been stoking the flames, using puppets in the media to incite even further violence. The government had been sympathetic through this all only to the extent of saying Geo should not be shut down. Apparently the bare minimum level of support for an independent media – that it shouldn’t be taken off the air – is too much for the government to sustain.
Key questions arise. Who is running the affairs of our country? When the government had said no channel should be punished this way, why has so vindictive an action been taken? The encouragement government capitulation will give to the undemocratic forces is unmistakable. We have received threats and ‘suggestions’ that the licence suspension be accepted to avoid hurting democracy. How can an undemocratic measure benefit the democratic rights of people in the country? The damage done to Geo has been immense but far greater will be the damage the country and society might eventually have to face if this persecution remains unchecked.