ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan's media regulators pulled the nation's leading news channel off the air on Friday, the latest development in a spat between the broadcaster and the military's powerful spy agency that has focused attention on media freedoms in the country.
Amnesty International decried the move against Geo News as a "politically motivated attack" targeting the network because of its perceived bias against the military. The decision was announced by Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, which suspended Geo News for 15 days and imposed a fine of 10 million Pakistani rupees — roughly $100,000.
The Authority, acting on a complaint by the Ministry of Defense, said it "took a strong notice of violations committed by Geo News and unanimously decided to immediately suspend" the channel's license.
Geo stayed on the air for a few hours Friday, reporting the suspension and showing a graphic of the station's logo wrapped in chains, before the signal was cut. Viewers then saw a blank screen with the message: "The license of Geo News has been suspended by PEMRA, therefore the broadcast has been terminated."
The move is the latest challenge for the media company after an assassination attempt against its top news anchor, Hamid Mir, on April 19. Mir survived six gunshot wounds to the stomach and legs during the attack in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city.
That attack touched off a high-profile row between Geo and the military's powerful intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence. The station angered the military by repeatedly airing accusations by Mir's brother that the ISI was behind the attack and showing a photo of the spy chief. Geo later apologized.
The ministry of defense petitioned the regulatory agency to pull Geo's license. The regulator has not made the complaint public but a copy was posted on the website of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
In it, the ministry blamed Geo for a "false and scandalous campaign" against the ISI and its officers. Geo and its parent company have fought back by filing a lawsuit against the Ministry of Defense, the ISI and the media regulator for "defaming and maligning" the channel. The lawsuit was announced Friday in The News, a newspaper owned by the parent company, Geo and Jang Group.
In the lawsuit, the company said cable operators have been under pressure to take Geo News off the air or move the station to a lower-profile channel even before Friday's suspension. The company also accused the ministry, the ISI and the media regulator of running a smear campaign that has put its employees as risk.
The president of Geo Network, Imran Aslam, warned that taking Geo News off the air removes a "bulwark against censorship." "It also is a lesson for a lot of other channels, and will be used as an example here so that the other channels toe the line," Aslam told The Associated Press.
Rights advocates condemned the suspension. Mustafa Qadri, a researcher for Amnesty International, said there are concerns about Geo airing allegations against the ISI without proof but the response should have been in line with international norms.
"Suspending an entire media channel, there is no justification for that," he said. Amnesty has called on the Pakistani government to immediately reverse the suspension. After decades of tight control over the media, Pakistan now has a vibrant journalism community with numerous television channels and newspapers that compete fiercely for readers and viewers.
But that media freedom can be extremely dangerous to those who practice it. According to CPJ, 30 journalists have been killed in Pakistan because of their work since 1992. Only two of those cases have seen any convictions.