Two leading Pakistani media outlets that had their television broadcasts shut down inside Pakistan have now been forced to end international broadcasts. VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from Islamabad that the new crackdown on independent media came as U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte met with President Pervez Musharraf.
Government officials in Islamabad shut down domestic broadcasts by leading Pakistani media outlet Geo television when emergency rule was imposed on November 3. Since then, network officials say, the government has waged a campaign to financially cripple the station, intimidating advertisers and suspending sports and entertainment programs.
Pakistan's main networks have continued to broadcast abroad through Internet and satellite transmissions. But early Saturday, Geo officials said the government pressured the networks' partners in Dubai to stop relaying its overseas transmissions, effectively shutting down their operations.
Some independent news channels have signed a new broadcast contract that allowed them to return to the airwaves in recent days, but Geo and ARY One World have not.
Geo President Imran Aslam calls the contract "draconian." He told VOA the contract allows officials to enter television offices at will, seize equipment and arrest employees.
"There have been indications that they would like to see some of our anchors, some of our hosts, some of our journalists sidelines - so we can be tamed a little bit," he said. "And this is not something we were willing to adhere to."
The crackdown against the broadcasters was swiftly condemned by journalists, lawyers and political opposition leaders.
At a rally Saturday outside Geo television's offices in Islamabad, more than 200 journalists chanted slogans denouncing President Pervez Musharraf.
Ansar Abbassi, a senior editor with The News newspaper, says he is one of several political reporters who have been unofficially barred by the government from appearing on television networks.
"I believe we have been vocal both through our writings and when we are on the air," he said. "We had no enmity with any party, but representing the people's view, I think this is not acceptable to Musharraf."
President Musharraf has defended the new media laws as necessary to ensure what he calls "responsible" reporting that does not undermine the government or incite violence. Critics say the laws are part of the broad campaign to crush opposition to emergency rule.
Abassi said despite the crackdowns, General Musharraf remains politically strong, because he still enjoys the backing of the United States.
"General Musharraf is all powerful even today, though he is very vulnerable," he added. "I have a firm belief that in the kind of movement we are seeing all around, his days are numbered. But Washington still wants, I think, to carry on with him."
On Friday, U.S. officials said Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte spoke by phone to Benazir Bhutto to hear her perspective on the political situation. On Saturday, he met with General Musharraf and other senior officials in Islamabad and was expected to press them to end emergency rule.
Pakistani officials said the president told Negroponte that emergency rule is necessary to ensure stability for January elections.