You may or may not have noticed it. Slowly and gradually, Geo, once the mightiest titan amongst the Pakistani news channels, has been eased out of the selection that your local cable has to offer.
Back when the channel was first taken off the air (during Musharraf’s “second coup” of 2007) it was easy to notice. Geo was the where-its-at of the Pakistani broadcast news media and it was tough to miss the omission. Plus, the clampdown was formally announced by the government.
The channel’s relations with the deep state improved during the ‘08-’13 PPP government. The media group was accused by the then ruling party of running a vicious and biased campaign against it and the establishment was, suffice to say, delighted.
That all changed when the League came into power. First of all, the media group was thought of as sympathetic to the party, an impression that was further reinforced by the PTI’s Imran Khan. Khan’s allegations were a tad hyperbolic; he had lost the elections fair and square and just swung at the biggest player in the news media business. There wasn’t any credible evidence to suggest that back then the channel had been more sympathetic to the League than the others. In fact, in a twisted defence, the channel had suggested that it had been biased in favour of the PTI and that it had learnt its lesson. Faced with the constant onslaught that Imran Khan sent its way, Geo soon did become a squarely PML(N-friendly mouthpiece.
The channel’s relations with the establishment itself were irreparably damaged back when star anchor Hamid Mir was attacked in 2014. At the time, the channel had started running a campaign against the then ISI chief, Zaheer-ul-Islam. In its defence, the channel said, amongst other things, that Mir had earlier told his brother Amir Mir, an accomplished journalist in his own right, that his life was at risk by the intelligence agencies. The court, however, ruled that this was slander.
There was a short ban back then. But it wasn’t as simple as that. The legion of the na malooms, we are told, started applying pressure on local cable operators in the Cantonments and DHAs to not include Geo News in it’s offering. In fact, for a brief period, even Jang and The News were finding it tough to get on the breakfast tables due to similar pressures on the newspaper hawkers.
Geo News then started getting back off and on in these areas till finally being shut out indefinitely. Matters have only recently gotten worse in that the blackout has extended from out of the cantonments and the DHAs and now covers the entire Geo suite, entertainment, sports and all.
An extension of the clampdown both across space and intensity.
Matters are made a tad bit complicated, however, when other voices from within the journalistic community wish to express solidarity with the group.
You see, till very recently, neither print nor broadcast concerns of the group screamed from the rooftops against this brazen clampdown. There was a simple reason for this: the group’s marketing department, we are told, begged with the management not to highlight this. A tad difficult asking for an ad when you’re also shouting out how no one gets to see the programming that ad is tucked away in.
It is clear, of course, that this closure is completely off-the-books. The concerned regulatory body is unaware. Clarifying that PEMRA had issued no order suspending the channels, it said in a statement that “Shutting down of any legal channel is in violation of PEMRA laws.”
“No orders have been issued regarding the channel closure or channel positioning by PEMRA” it went on to add.
This is a sad state of affairs. Local level arm twisting renders the legitimate state frame irrelevant. Perhaps when the internet completely overtakes the broadcast news media, the way it is about to overtake print, things will get better on this front.
The online television channels can also be closed, but not without keeping the PTA in the loop, not without leaving a paper trail of the orders. In the current case, Geo is somewhat like those kept in extrajudicial detention. Habeas Corpus. In limbo….