=> ISLAMABAD: President of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf
ISLAMABAD: President of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf on Saturday ordered Geo News and its Sports channel back on the air with immediate effect.
Pakistan’s largest and most popular news network will thus come back to Pakistani homes after an unprecedented absence of 78 days.
Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) will ask cable operators this evening to connect Geo and viewers will start watching the popular channel from tomorrow morning.
Geo disappeared from television screens at 2pm on November 3, four hours before the proclamation of Provisional Constitution Order (PCO) as well the Ammended Pemra Ordinance, which many considered a retrogressive step in media development that the country was enjoying under the current government. While, all national and foreign news channels were banned a few hours before the emergency, however Geo’s case was distinct to begin with as even its sports, youth and entertainment channels also disappeared from television screens.
On November 3 the government brought the new Amended Pemra Ordinance 2007 that was immediately followed by a new code of conduct for the electronic media on November 4. This code of conduct, that was supposed to be a voluntary agreement on behalf of the electronic media, just like the act that preceded it, contained provisions such as the imprisonment of journalists up to three years, revocation of broadcast licences and the confiscation of equipment. It became a bone of contention between the government and the electronic media. However, by November 12 the government was successful in negotiating certain conditions which allowed most channels back on the air, including CNBC, Dawn News, Aaj TV and Business Plus as they signed the code of conduct.
Geo and ARY networks remained banned on Pakistan’s cable systems. They continued their international broadcasts from Dubai Media City (DMC) and in addition to the large Pakistani diasporas across the UK, Europe, the Middle East and the United States they were available to anyone who had a satellite dish fitted.
However, on December 16 the DMC took the decision of stopping the international broadcasts of both these channels. Though Ms Amina Rustamani, Executive Director of Dubai Media City, cited some internal regulations but the decision was generally perceived to be taken under pressure from the government of Pakistan. On November 22 ARY resumed its broadcasts from DMC. It was soon allowed back inside Pakistan as well. Geo for all practical purposes became the last one standing.
The financial impact of this ban for Geo network was unprecedented, as its entertainment and sports channels were also not available inside Pakistan despite the fact that the Ordinance did not target non-news channels. Geo Super had just secured the rights to the India-Pakistan cricket series, an event bigger than the Ashes in terms of its importance in sports, and lost $15 million, most of the money paid upfront. In total the network’s loss is estimated to be between Rs 150-200 crores, enough to have endangered the livelihood of over 10,000 employees that depend on it. The state broadcaster, PTV, was in agreement with Geo, on a revenue sharing basis, to show the cricket series on its terrestrial distribution but without giving any explanation it stopped airing after the first day’s matches. This was a huge blow to sports as the nation’s only sports channel’s viability came under question and caused huge disappointment for most people in Pakistan who couldn’t watch the historic series, despite it being an event that could have had a calming effect from the events that were happening around the country.
Geo Television that started its broadcasts on August 14, 2002, marking its inauguration with Pakistan’s Independence Day, has been hugely popular. In the January of 2004, New York Times commented that “Geo has changed Pakistan’s media landscape”. In August 2007, a survey by the Herald Magazine, a prestigious publication allied with the Dawn Group, concluded that 68% of the public trusted Geo for information as compared to merely 11% for the state broadcaster, PTV and 7% for ARY and Aaj respectively. And in 2007 the International Brand Rating Organisation, Super Brands, declared Geo and Jang Group the top media brands of Pakistan.
Given this popularity, public attachment and market position, Geo’s sudden disappearance from television screens was soon perceived as a void in Pakistani homes; many were quoted as saying they had stopped watching television. Thousands of journalists protested and hundreds of the general public, from all walks of life, thronged the Geo offices, in all cities, to demonstrate and sign message books expressing their love and solidarity. There was a rush to buy satellite dishes across Pakistan, which led at one stage to the government banning the sale of satellite dish.
Former prime minister late Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto and US Ambassador to Pakistan Ms Anne Patterson were among the notables who visited the Geo offices to express support to the Geo team and to demand lifting of the ban on its transmissions inside Pakistan. Others like former prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif, and MQM Quaid Altaf Hussain showed grave concern and demanded resumption of its transmissions. Even Mushahid Hussain, secretary general of the then ruling party PML-Q, termed the decision to ban Geo a mistake.
Geo had made it clear, from the very beginning, that it along with others in the media, was very critical of the code of conduct as well as the amended Pemra Ordinance. However, it had made it clear that it was willing to sign the code of conduct because the Ordinance itself was a lot worse and was law. However, the government did not approach Geo.
Geo did, however, go to the Sindh High Court with a principled position that, like other channels, it was taken off air inside Pakistan a few hours before the proclamation of emergency and the PCO and therefore it never had any opportunity to work under the new code of conduct or the much more severe Ordinance or to violate it.
Between the first week of November and December 4, 2007, the Sindh High Court heard this case five times. The federal government that was represented by the deputy attorney general never stated the government position. At one point the deputy attorney general told the court that since Geo is banned from Dubai Media City it is not available inside Pakistan. However, by the time the fourth hearing took place, Dubai Media City, after facing mounting criticism of the international media, human rights and other watchdog organisations, had already allowed Geo to resume its broadcasts and the judge told the deputy attorney general to clarify the matter as a decision has to be taken. However, at the next hearing on December 4 the court decided that given the state of emergency in the country Geo’s petition is not maintainable.
After the end of emergency Geo approached the Supreme Court which on Jan 7, 2008 remanded the case to the Sindh High Court with the observation that it is maintainable and should be decided within one month on merit. In the second week of Jan 2008 the Paris-based international media monitor, Reporters Sans Frontiers, identified five problems with Pakistan’s media coverage for the forthcoming elections on February 18 and identified the continuing ban on Geo News, the country’s largest news network, as one of the main hurdles.
Finally the office of the president intervened and despite his busy schedule before his pending trip to Brussels to speak to the European parliament, London and the World Economic Forum in Davos, President Musharraf was gracious to find time for meetings on the issue and ordered that Pakistan’s largest and most popular news network be immediately made available inside Pakistan.
Geo and the government spokesman claim that many issues have been resolved between the two parties, but some are still left and it is hoped that they would be resolved very soon.
Source: The News