By Shahzad Raza
23 May 2014
Supporters of sectarian group Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat hold pro-army signs during a rally against Geo News television
Despite damage control measures by the government, the military establishment is seemingly adamant to punish the Geo network. There are reports that it has rejected a written apology by the organization and wants to make it into an example.
And not everyone in the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) wants to mediate between the media network and the military establishment.
“Sorry, but why should we jump into the fray?” one veteran politician from the party said. “This is not our war. Let them fight.”
Like a pack of hungry wolves, other news networks are more than eager to devour their largest rival. Journalists say there are two primary reasons behind the madness. First, corporate stakes are rather high. As the country’s largest network falls, it will benefit each one of them. Second, there are old scores to settle.
The PML-N’s media management is better than that of the People’s Party. The previous government suffered because of excruciating media trials on a number of issues, but then-president Asif Ali Zardari refrained from locking horns with the media. But the tolerance level of the PML-N is far lower. And the armed forces, considered a holy cow for several decades, take even the slightest criticism very seriously.
The armed forces, especially the ISI, were able to repair their image quite quickly. Some proscribed outfits held countrywide rallies in support of the military. The Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid and several other political parties vowed to protect the respect and dignity of the armed forces.
The establishment has killed several birds with one stone, which it had not even thrown.
Without a chairman, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) could not make a decision, and its members are sharply divided between the five members who met on May 20 to suspend the Geo network’s license, to the rest of them who issued a press release distancing themselves from the decision and calling it illegal.
Soon after its launch last year, Capital TV had its transmission suspended for days because a guest in one of its programs quoted an abusive remark against then army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani.
Veteran journalist and former secretary of Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists Mazhar Abbas said the network had violated professional principles when it made serious allegations against the ISI chief, but he was equally concerned about the response from other news networks. “The Pakistani media has become suicidal. It is not realizing the gravity of situation,” he said.
If the Geo network were banned, he said, other channels might not survive either or suffer from the worst form of censorship.
In the early 1960s, the prestigious pre-partition newspaper Civil and Military Gazette published a controversial story on the Kashmir dispute. As Zamir Niazi wrote in his seminal work Press in Chains, all contemporary newspapers including Dawn and Pakistan Times ganged up on it. It was Hameed Nizami, the founding editor of Nawa-e-Waqt group, who spearheaded the move. Unfortunately, leftist poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz also yielded to the pressure.
Analysts believe Geo News might have survived the ISI controversy, but the allegations of blasphemy against its morning show has made the matter much more serious. The Sunni Ittehad Council issued a Fatwa against Geo News. Criminal cases were registered and a number of groups took to the streets urging boycott of the network. Some cable operators turned the channel off.
Geo News apologized for the mistake. To rectify, the morning show was suspended and an inquiry launched. The network also showed similar content deemed blasphemous being run on several other television channels. But many clerics are not satisfied.
Mufti Naeem of the Jamia Naeemia in Binoori Town, Karachi said there was no need to prolong the matter if the channel management had apologized, and other channels should not run the same content again and again.
It is not clear how and when the madness will stop. But the army and the government are both likely to emerge as the biggest winners.
Shahzad Raza is an Islamabad-based journalist