By Declan Walsh
May 26, 2014
For a moment, it seemed that a victor had emerged from Pakistan’s news media wars. After a month of mud-slinging between rival television stations, officials from the government media regulator announced last week that Geo News, the country’s most popular news channel, would immediately be closed.
The decision appeared to be a triumph for Inter-Services Intelligence, the military spy agency that has vigorously campaigned for Geo’s closing. The news channel and the agency have been at odds over accusations, broadcast on Geo, that the ISI orchestrated a gun attack last month on the station’s most famous journalist, the talk show host Hamid Mir. Other television stations, eager for the demise of a powerful competitor, have backed the ISI.
But the ban on Geo was short-lived. Hours later, the regulator’s executive arm, backed by the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, reversed the decision, which it termed an illegal act by a handful of its own members. Geo would remain on the air.
The farcical about-face was a mark of the chaos that has engulfed Pakistan’s influential news media in the past month, as the spat over Mr. Mir’s shooting has broadened into a much wider conflict.
A powerful array of critics, from Islamist extremists to slick-suited television hosts, have lined up behind the ISI to attack Geo. Rival channels have issued nightly tirades against the station, painting it as a patsy of India and the West.
The politician Imran Khan accused it of helping to rig last year’s general election. Hafiz Saeed, the leader of the banned militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, joined the attack. And religious leaders, riding a wave of intolerance, charged it with blasphemy — a criminal offense that carries a potential death penalty in Pakistan.
More broadly, the campaign to oust Geo has become enmeshed in a web of tensions between the country’s civilian and military leadership. Just one year into his term, Mr. Sharif has already clashed with the army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, on several major issues, including Taliban peace talks and the fate of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the former military leader currently facing a treason trial. Now Geo, too, has come between them.
“The media fight is intense and dramatic, but it’s not the main show,” said Ayaz Amir, a commentator and former politician. “On a broader canvas, it’s about Nawaz and the military.”
Geo has dominated television news coverage over the past decade with a showy, often buccaneering style that has drawn huge audiences, made handsome profits for its reclusive owner, Mir Shakil ur-Rehman, and helped establish television news as a feisty new center of power and influence in society.
That success has also brought powerful enemies. The news media’s newfound strength has constrained the military’s ability to interfere in politics, and once unassailable generals have winced under sometimes withering press criticism, such as after the American commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011.
But while the army’s animus toward Geo is understandable, the hostility of Mr. Khan, whose political career was bolstered by his appearances on Geo, is more baffling. Some analysts suggest he is siding with the army to boost his flagging base.
Another political actor to seize on Geo’s weakness is Muhammad Tahir ul Qadri, a fiery Canada-based preacher who led thousands of supporters into central Islamabad in January 2013 and recently started a protest movement to oust Mr. Sharif’s government.
In the past week, Geo’s opponents have focused their efforts on the blasphemy charges, which stem from an entertainment show in which a popular actress, Veena Malik, re-enacted her marriage ceremony as a religious hymn played in the background. Ms. Malik is known for publicity stunts that have outraged conservatives, like appearing topless on the cover of an Indian magazine with the letters “ISI” tattooed on her arm, and Geo’s enemies seized on the presentation of the song to claim that the channel had disrespected the family of the Prophet Muhammad.
Attacks on Geo by rival channels are motivated in part by commercial rivalry; Geo’s dominance of the lucrative advertising market has made Mr. Rehman a wealthy man, and made his station a target for smaller channels. But the recent wave of attacks, some encouraged by the ISI, has acquired a vituperative quality that veers dangerously close to propaganda.
On ARY, a rival channel whose host Mubasher Lucman has practically made a career of attacking Geo, Islamic clerics declared last week that the broadcast featuring Ms. Malik constituted blasphemy. Days later, a religious group filed blasphemy charges against Geo at a police station. Online critics have reinforced the assault on Twitter, subjecting Mr. Rehman and Mr. Mir to vicious personal attacks.
Geo has apologized for the entertainment show and offered a robust rebuttal to its other critics. Even so, the rolling crisis has visibly damaged the station. Cable companies have relegated Geo to an obscure location on its channel lists or just pulled it off the air. Advertisers have deserted the channel. Mr. Rehman’s son, Ibrahim, who runs the station, has fled to Dubai, where Mr. Rehman already lives.
Pakistan’s minority liberals have recently rallied behind Mr. Rehman, even those who had previously criticized Geo for irresponsible and sensationalist programming. In an unusual statement, the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan called for a halt to the “malicious campaign” against Geo.
“Irrespective of what H.R.C.P. or anyone else might think about Geo’s editorial judgment,” the group said, “instigating people to come out on the street following charges of blasphemy are an extremely dangerous trend.”
In theory, the crisis should be resolved by the government regulator, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, which is due to adjudicate this Wednesday on ISI complaints that Geo mounted a “vicious campaign” against it. But the process has become deeply politicized.
Mr. Sharif is seen to be siding with Geo, as part of a wider conflict with the army. Much of it stems from General Musharraf’s treason trial. Although the military is outraged by the sight of a former army chief facing prosecution in a civilian court, Mr. Sharif, who was himself ousted by General Musharraf in a coup in 1999, has refused private entreaties to let his nemesis slip quietly out of the country.
The military, in turn, has behaved in a cool fashion toward Mr. Sharif, and there have been policy clashes over major issues, such as whether to fight or negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban. Some worry that Mr. Sharif is alienating the army in the same way he did before the 1999 coup.
“When Nawaz was elected last year, people said he was a changed man, wiser and more mature,” said Mr. Amir, the analyst, who belonged to Mr. Sharif’s party until last year. “But when the crunch comes, he’s still the same man.”
The internecine news media strife has dismayed senior journalists, leading to calls for a new system of regulation. On Friday the English-language newspaper Dawn warned that further fighting risked “destroying any semblance of a free and responsible Pakistani media.”
Amid the furor, the plight of Mr. Mir, the journalist who was shot last month, has been all but forgotten.
He has started to recover from his six gunshot wounds, and on Monday appeared before an official inquiry that seeks to identify his attackers. But in such a charged atmosphere, and in a country where political violence is rarely resolved, few believe that inquiry will amount to much.
Kiran Nazish contributed reporting from New York.