Popular Pakistan TV Network Back, Minus a Few Teeth
By SALMAN MASOOD, The New York Times, January 22, 2008
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — With the notable absence of two hard-hitting political talk shows, Pakistan’s most popular private television news channel was allowed to resume cable broadcasts within Pakistan on Monday, ending a blackout that had lasted more than two months.
The channel, Geo, along with other television networks, were taken off air after President Pervez Musharraf imposed a state of emergency in the country on Nov. 3 as he suspended the constitution, fired the Supreme Court and blocked all independent media.
Almost all of the news networks were allowed to resume broadcasting by December as President Musharraf lifted the emergency, and after the networks had agreed to sign a controversial “code of conduct.” But executives at Geo, known for its aggressive news coverage, refused to sign and so it remained off the air in Pakistan.
President Musharraf said he was allowing Geo to resume broadcasting in a decision officially announced Sunday, which came just as he was about to leave on an eight-day visit to Europe. The announcement was widely seen in Pakistan as a pre-emptive move to thwart criticism he might have faced abroad about attempts to muzzle the media.
It was unclear whether Geo had agreed to sign the code of conduct as a condition for the resumption. But the network did agree to keep two popular political talk shows off the air at least temporarily because of President Musharraf’s objections to them, said a Geo official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Geo executives did not comment on any specifics in negotiations. The network said in a statement that “many issues have been resolved between the two parties, but some are still left and it is hoped that they would be resolved very soon.”
In an interview Monday evening, Mir Ibrahim Rahman, the chief executive of Geo, said the network had “resumed its broadcast with a message of tolerance.”
He said Geo had lost $25 million because of the cable broadcast suspension in Pakistan and it was “just thankful to be back on air.”
The cable ban in Pakistan did not affect the Geo network’s broadcast out of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, which was available on satellite and over the Internet. However, a majority of Pakistan’s population uses cable systems to view private television networks and could not watch Geo during the ban.
President Musharraf was initially credited with liberalizing the independent press after he took power in 1999.
News media flourished under his rule as more than a dozen private networks opened up and became popular.
However, strains appeared between President Musharraf and the country’s media organizations last spring over the legal and political wrangling surrounding Mr. Musharraf’s suspension of Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the chief justice of the Pakistani Supreme Court.
Critical political talk shows, extensive coverage of opposition lawyers and political rallies, live broadcast of Mr. Chaudhry’s speeches and vitriolic criticism of Pakistani military angered Mr. Musharraf.
Government officials accused independent news media of becoming an opposition mouthpiece, indulging in sensationalism and insulting the Pakistani military.
Many viewers and analysts say the television news networks have lost their sting and criticism of the government is diluted since the networks have been allowed to resume broadcasting.
Mian Mohammad Soomro, the caretaker prime minister, denied the government was restricting any media organization and said the government “would continue to work closely with representatives of media organizations in the country to further strengthen their positive role.”
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