Pakistan’s most widely-viewed TV channel says it has been “forced off the air” this week, fuelling fears that the country’s security forces are “flexing their authority over civilian institutions” including the government itself.
As signals to the Geo TV network vanished across most of the nation, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority insisted that it is not behind the blackout - leaving fingers pointing at the country’s military.
The channel, which in recent years has switched from a pro-security stance to an anti-military agenda, appears to be the latest casualty in a crusade against dissenting media organisations by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s feared intelligence agency.
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According to The New York Times, Geo TV officials “took pains not to publicly blame the military” for the closure of their network, amid fears of retribution. However, the newspaper says that “the action against Geo is being seen as an unmistakable message from the country’s generals that they would accept no negative reporting”.
Vox goes further, claiming Geo’s forced closure is part of a wider attempt by the Pakistani military to wage a “quiet war on journalists”.
What is happening to the press in Pakistan?
Since its birth as a nation in 1947, Pakistan has had a chequered history when it comes to journalistic freedom.
Civil society groups in the country say the freedom of press in the country is “increasingly at risk”, German newspaper Deutsche Welle reports. The Paris-based campaign group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranks Pakistan ranks 139th out of 179 countries on its press freedom index.
According to RSF, media organisations in Pakistan are frequently targeted by what it calls “predators of press freedom”, consisting of extremist organisations, fundamentalist Islamic groups and - most intriguingly - the country’s own military and the ISI, which act entirely independently of the state and have been responsible for three coup d’etats since Pakistan’s inception.
With murders, forced disappearances, death threats and censure of journalists and media outlets becoming increasingly common, concerns have been raised about the extensive influence of the powerful military establishment.
The military’s stranglehold means that “anyone who attempts to report on what’s happening in Pakistan now runs the risk of disappearing”, says Vox, describing the country as a “black hole of information”.
The crackdown on press freedom may have wide-reaching consequences on the world stage. The military blackout of media correspondence out of regions such as Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan and is known to be the base of numerous terrorist organisations, has fanned accusations from the international community that Pakistan both protects and funds terrorism.
What does this mean for civil government?
At a recent conference hosted by London-based think-tank Democracy Forum, former Reuters journalist and author Myra MacDonald said that Pakistan’s separation of military and government is a by-product of the former looming threat of an Indian land invasion.
The two countries’ nuclear tests of 1998 “should, in theory, have created parity between them, since Pakistan no longer had any reason to feel insecure about an Indian invasion”, she said, according to The Economic Times.
Instead, the dominance of the military in Pakistan not only undermined democracy but threatened to turn it into a failing state, MacDonald argued.
“The intelligence agencies hold so much power that even the police can’t touch them,” Vox adds. As for the military establishment more broadly, “even when not in power, it is seen as exerting influence over security and foreign strategies”, says Bloomberg.
“With its substantial business interests - an empire that covers everything from food, schools and cement - the military stays in the public eye and enjoys local support,” the news website reports.
International relations scholar Atta Rasool Malik disagrees, arguing in an article for the Asia Times that the fears of a takeover are overblown.
“There is a lot of disinformation concerning Pakistan’s armed forces and ISI coming from domestic and foreign media houses”, encouraged by “a few politicians and liberals in Pakistan... [who] want to garner international support by criticising Pakistan’s armed forces”, he writes. “Domestic bashing by mainstream political parties could derail the ongoing battle against radicals and extremists.”
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