The battle for Pakistan’s Geo TV

Pakistani policeman on top of the Geo TV building in Islamabad on 30 April 2014 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Guarding Geo - but can the channel survive the wide-ranging calls for it to be taken off air?

The failed attempt by some members of Pakistan's media regulator to take Geo news off air was farcical - but there is nothing funny about the battle over the channel's future.

Pakistan's once most-watched television channel, with the country's largest newsgathering network, has lost more than 80% of its viewers in less than a month, a Geo official says.

There is no way to substantiate that claim at the moment, but there are signs that he may not be entirely wrong.

Geo is off the menu of most cable TV providers in military cantonment areas across Pakistan, while those operating elsewhere have moved it to near the bottom of their channel list where signals are often weak.

This has come in the wake of a series of events in which Geo has been accused of unprofessional conduct by the military, blasphemy by the religious lobby and treachery by its business rivals.

A top opposition leader and former cricketer, Imran Khan, has gone to the extent of accusing the channel of helping Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif rig the May 2013 elections.

He is presently conducting a vociferous street campaign to call the credibility of elections into question.

On Tuesday, Geo miraculously survived what many saw as a death blow when Pakistan's media regulator Pemra had to quash a decision of some of its own members, made hours earlier, to suspend the channel's licence.

Army anger

Many say this bizarre split within Pemra may actually be symptomatic of a new phase in the tug-of-war between the country's civilian and military leaderships that has been going on since 2008, when democracy was restored.

The trigger for this latest episode came on 19 April when a high-profile Geo reporter, Hamid Mir, was shot and injured in an ambush in Karachi. Both he and his channel said Pakistan's feared ISI intelligence service were responsible for the attack.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Geo's high-profile presenter Hamid Mir survived being shot six times in Karachi

The military issued a terse denial, then went to Pemra through the defence ministry to cancel Geo's licence for defaming a state institution.

Mysteriously, before Pemra could decide on the matter, cable operators across the country started to either drop Geo from their menus, or move it to the bottom of the list.

Also, religious groups sympathetic to Taliban militants hit the streets in support of the ISI, calling Geo a traitor and demanding its demise.

At the same time, some rival TV channels also started taking pot shots at Geo, accusing it of promoting the interests of the United States and India - two countries that most vocal right-wing or pro-military groups in Pakistan like to paint as the enemy.

Elsewhere, the issue led to a wider debate about the passing of editorial controls from professional journalists to media owners, a trend set by none other than Geo itself but which is now endemic to most media groups. Many say a professional editor would have handled the 19 April attack on Hamid Mir differently.

'Blasphemy' row

Geo made another error of judgment on 14 May when its flagship morning show Utho Jago Pakistan (Get up, wake up Pakistan) tried to mix "sensitive religious material with crass entertainment", as an editorial in Dawn newspaper put it.

On this two-hour show, a religious hymn describing the wedding of Prophet Mohammad's daughter to the fourth Caliph, Ali, was played during the enactment of the wedding of a controversial Pakistani actress, Veena Malik.

The right-wing lobby, which blamed Ms Malik for a topless photo shoot in India two years ago, was up in arms, and a case was lodged against Geo and its female show host, Shaista Lodhi, under Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law.

The split in Pemra comes against this backdrop, and for many it represents the split between the civil and military leadership.

The military wants to "teach Geo a lesson" in order to silence its critics in the media, analysts say, but the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would not like to be seen as undermining democracy and the freedom of expression. He also needs some criticism of the military to create space for his own government, they say.

Media divided

The military has ruled Pakistan directly or through a combination of political proxies and legal entrapments for most of its 67 years since independence.

Its tensions with the previous PPP government in 2008 started when the government tried to bring the ISI under civilian control.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Protesters have been gathering outside Geo's headquarters in Islamabad in support of the military

A number of subsequent moves by the military and the judiciary led to the almost total incapacitation of that government, analysts say.

These moves undermined Pakistan's smooth economic and security relations with the US, embroiled the government in a diplomatic row known as the Memogate scandal and led to the sacking of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani by the Supreme Court.

After Prime Minister Sharif came to power in 2013, he took a gamble with the military when he decided to charge former army chief and president, General Pervez Musharraf, with high treason.

Geo and many other news channels took a clear position against the military on that issue.

With Geo in the dock, the media stands divided, and anti-Geo protests across the country continue unabated.

Pemra will next meet on 28 May to consider the ISI's complaint against Geo and is likely to come to a decision.

What it chooses to do will reflect the extent to which Mr Sharif is willing to withstand the pressure from the lobbies that want Geo's head.

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