“It’s like a newspaper you’re used to getting at your doorstep every day. Suddenly one morning, the newspaper boy starts throwing it in different places every day – near the post box, behind or in the garbage can, on top of the tree, at your neighbour’s porch. That is what is happening with the cable operators taking Geo channels off their regular channel numbers and moving them to the bottom numbers and moving the numbers around.”
That is how a Geo insider describes the ‘ban’ on the channel, even after the Supreme Court, Lahore High Court and Sindh High Court termed the channels’ closure illegal and ordered their restoration. (Read the back story in my earlier article: “Pakistan’s media wars”, in Himal Southasian.
Cable operators say that they are under pressure to not restore the Geo channels (news, sports, entertainment) to their original positions. Meanwhile, companies are under pressure to not advertise with the Jang Group and Geo TV, and many have withdrawn their ads.
The group has been publishing front-page advertisements appealing to the Parliament to step in, and a series of half-page ads featuring appeals by prominent Pakistanis to restore Geo.
Now, after over four months of blocked and losing revenue, “Geo nears complete closure; billions lost, salaries crisis erupts, journalists’ employment at risk,” says a Jang Group spokesman, in an explosive (though not very well written) news report titled “What a parliament that is silent!” (September 4, 2014).
The Jang Group says that they are under pressure to sell 35-50 per cent shares to certain people. The group has also received verbal messages from credible mediators that “the issue will be considered” if they pay Rs200-250 million.
Even more alarmingly, pressure has been mounted on the head of the group to step down — “We will appoint chief executive and editor and ensure that the group is run properly”, he has been told via credible intermediaries. Various prominent names have been proposed to head the group — including a famous anchor/journalist who has since left the group and joined a to-be-launched TV channel.
“The Group has so far been paying salaries on its own but it now has no more capacity,” says the Jang spokesman. “We have to make payments to the banks, pay utility bills. Salaries of the staff are being delayed.”
There are rumours that Geo is selling shares – a quite blatant attempt to confuse to the issue. Consider: the rumour was first aired by the notorious Mubashir Lucman of the rival ARY TV channel, followed a few days later by the name Abraaj being bandied about as the possible buyer. The other rumour being spread is that the Geo News mobile phone app is being used to harvest and share personal data. This falsehood too stems from the same source(s)
The Jang Group spokesman said the group has proof that some ISI officers are involved in getting Geo closed. The group has been trying to contact the army chief General Raheel Sharif, ISI chief General Zahir-ul-Islam and DG ISPR who “know these things”, but there has been “no response”.
Editorial staffers of the Jang Group have also contacted the heads, leaders, senators and MNAs of almost all the political parties requesting them to raise the issue but barring a couple of honourable exceptions like Senator Zahid, nobody has so far had the courage to do so openly.
Not surprising considering that the group head and others have been accused (falsely) of “blasphemy”, with Mubashir Lucman of ARY leading the charge. There are currently over 50 cases of ‘blasphemy’ against various Geo representatives in police stations around the country. Death threats are being extended — not to be taken lightly.
The group has approached journalists’ organisations in Pakistan but they too have not taken up the issue “because of fear”, says the spokesman.
The fact that there is disunity among journalists may have something to do with this too – where there was once one strong, united Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, now there are some four factions.
Jang Group has urged parliamentarians to raise the issue in the assemblies and form a committee that should conduct and inquiry calling in relevant people from the Jang Group, ISI, ISPR, Pemra and Ministry of Information.
“Though we are a private commercial Group, we have enough courage to give this statement,” said the spokesman, saying that the group is willing to share the facts with the chief justice and judges in closed-door hearing.
Not surprisingly, he reiterated the Jang Group’s respect and love for the Armed forces: “It should be clear that Jang Group has repeatedly said that it not only respects but loves the Armed Forces of Pakistan. The Armed Forces have given sacrifices for the country and Jang Group is proud of those who have laid down their lives for the sake of the nation.”
“International journalist organisations and world media have raised this issue, and many have noted that that one of the reasons for civil-military tension in Pakistan is the Geo issue,” he added.
Some people say that the matter will be resolved by October, when political changes are expected. One can hope that it will be resolved earlier, and that the democratic political process will prevail, for the sake of media freedom, democracy — and journalists’ livelihoods.