ISLAMABAD — Rights groups are condemning the move by Pakistan's media regulator to suspend Geo News, the country's largest news channel, due to a dispute involving the nation's powerful spy agency.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders all said the decision undermines press freedoms in Pakistan.
On Friday, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) said it was immediately suspending Geo's license for 15 days and fining the company $100,000 for committing "violations."
The organization says all field officers have been instructed to ensure implementation of its orders.
PEMRA said if GEO repeats its "violations," it could face proceedings to revoke its broadcasting license.
The suspension orders were issued in response to a formal petition by the Pakistani defense ministry to cancel the channel’s broadcasting rights for what it alleged a “false and scandalous campaign against the ISI and its officers”.
GEO off air
GEO News channel’s transmission went off the air shortly after the official announcement.
The suspension is the latest challenge for GEO News following an assassination attempt in April against its news anchor, Hamid Mir, the most popular political talk show host in Pakistan.
Mir is said to have survived six gunshot wounds to the stomach and legs during the attack in the southern port city of Karachi.
Shortly after the attack, GEO News repeatedly aired accusations by Mir and his family members that the chief of the country’s military spy agency, ISI, planned the attack.
In a recent interview with VOA, the news anchor, Hamid Mir, defended GEO’s coverage of the attack on him.
“I informed my management not once but more than once in advance that the elements of one intelligence agency are after my life. I gave them the names in writing and that is why they [GEO News] mentioned the names,” he said.
The broadcaster came under fire from media critics for overstepping journalistic norms and ethics, but they have strongly opposed attempts to shut down Geo News.
Local and foreign advocates of press freedom insist the Pakistani intelligence agency is free to rebut allegations against it but should not censor media coverage.
Abid Suleri, a social analyst and the executive director of Sustainable Development Policy Institute, says “one can say that perhaps any channel while reporting may not be observing some standard operating procedures and might have overstepped their limit, or they might have not followed the journalistic professional ethics."
"But it does not mean that we start shutting down the channels," he added. "So, perhaps we should resist any attempt to shut down any major or minor channel."
A senior official with the Committee to Protect Journalists, Bob Dietz, told VOA's Deewa Radio the suspension seems to be an overreaction by the government.
He said the government is taking out a "vendetta" against the broadcaster for the way it handled the Mir shooting.
“This seems to me to be really punitive and an overreaction on the government’s part," he said. "What we’ve seen is that there’s been a real vendetta taken out against the GEO for the way it handled the attack on Hamid Mir and this is the official extension of all those other activities that we’ve seen in Pakistan over the last month or two. It’s not a good indicator of who’s controlling the media in Pakistan.”
The military denies allegations that the ISI had anything to do with the assassination attempt on Mir. There have been accusations against the spy agency that it was behind some of the attacks on journalists in Pakistan.
Meanwhile, in an unprecedented move, the private Pakistani broadcaster says it is suing the intelligence agency together with two other state-affiliated institutions for “maligning” GEO and accusing it of have an “anti-Pakistan” agenda.
In its legal notice sent to the ISI, the broadcaster said the three government agencies made "baseless allegations" that have resulted in the broadcasters' staff members being "attacked and tortured across Pakistan."
Geo has demanded a public apology within two weeks and $500 million in damages. It alleges that thousands of its workers “are not only being harassed but also attacked and tortured across Pakistan.”
Some information for this report comes from AP, and AFP.