Authorities in Pakistan suspended a mainstream television channel Monday in what critics denounced as an illegal move to stifle media freedom in the country.
Private Pakistani cable operators were ordered by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to block the transmission of ARY News immediately “till further notice.”
The state regulator later sent a formal “show cause notice” to the broadcaster, accusing it of airing “false, hateful and seditious content.” It went on to argue that ARY News aired comments early Monday on one of its shows by a spokesman for ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan which PEMRA said were “tantamount to inciting [the] ranks and files of armed forces towards revolt.”
PEMRA went on to say in the letter that “airing of such content on your news channel shows either a weak editorial in the content or the licensee is intentionally indulged in providing its platform to such individuals who intend to spread malice and hatred against the state institution for their vested interest.”
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Party (PTI) accused the government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif of sponsoring a social media campaign aimed at proving the opposition party is anti-army.
The TV channel rejected PEMRA’s charges as unlawful, and so did legal experts, journalists and PTI leaders.
CEO says channel shut for reporting truth
Salman Iqbal, founder and CEO of one of the most popular channels in Pakistan, tweeted that his ARY News “gets shut down just because we reported a true story.”
Muhammad Ahmad Pansota, a lawyer and legal analyst, condemned PEMRA for suspending ARY News without any legal justification.
In a tweet, he called freedom of the press a constitutionally guaranteed right that must not be tampered with by anyone, including the state.
Sedition allegations, critics say, are often used to intimidate and harass media outlets and journalists critical of the powerful military institution.
Mubashir Zaidi, a prime-time television anchor, advised the government against suspending any channel, noting such an action is in violation of recent judicial orders.
"But in this case, shutdown happened ahead of the notice, and the action will be declared illegal by the courts sooner or later,” Zaid tweeted.
Media watchdogs also suspect the military is behind a recent campaign of intimidation and harassment against journalists in Pakistan — charges the government and army reject.
Multiple cases of intimidation
In recent weeks, cases of intimidation were registered against several Pakistani journalists for questioning the military’s alleged role in the national politics.
France-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) cautioned the Pakistan army high command last month against further harassment of the media, saying such tactics would “seriously undermine” democracy in Pakistan.
“The many cases of harassment that RSF has registered in the past two months have one thing in common — all the journalists concerned had, in one way or another, criticized the army’s role in Pakistani politics,” said Daniel Bastard, head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“It is clear from the data that the armed forces have launched a major campaign to intimidate critical journalists. This kind of interference, which is absolutely intolerable, must stop at once or else the chief of the army staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, will be held directly responsible for the decline in press freedom in Pakistan,” Bastard said.
Khan alleges the United States colluded with Sharif and other opposition parties to oust him through a parliamentary vote of no-confidence in April, charges that Washington rejects vehemently.
The deposed prime minister has also accused the military leadership of supporting what he claims was a U.S.-sponsored “regime change” plot against his nearly four-year-old government allegedly provoked by his efforts to conduct Pakistan’s foreign policy independent of Washington influence.