RANA JAWAD pinches the bridge of his nose. For much of the past month the director of news at Geo TV, Pakistan’s most popular channel, has marshalled his team of correspondents in the knowledge that broadcasts of their work have been mysteriously cut in most of the country. Post-it notes scrawled with frowny faces stick to his office window, requesting unpaid salaries. “We are already in the grave, with one hand sticking out,” he says.
The blackout began in late March. Many of Pakistan’s 73m-odd cable subscribers began to complain that they could no longer watch Geo’s offerings. Not only had Geo News disappeared, but so had sports and entertainment channels (upsetting fans of the Indian soap operas they carry). Viewership of the news fell by 70% in the fortnight to April 15th, according to official figures. That was not all. Newspapers owned by Jang group, the conglomerate behind Geo, went undelivered. At the company’s offices in Karachi, city officials cut the internet cable.
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These troubles stem from Geo’s bold editorial stance. In the 16 years since Pakistan granted licences for privately run television channels, Geo has carved out an identity as the one most willing to challenge the army. This is a lonely role. Almost all of its rivals parrot the military line. Many denounce Geo as an agent of India, an absurd accusation spurred by its campaign in 2010 for peace with the old enemy.
In 2014 unknown assailants shot Geo’s Hamid Mir, the country’s best-known journalist. (He survived.) Geo claimed that the head of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the country’s main spy agency, which is dominated by the army, had ordered the attack—a rare public denunciation of an institution usually referred to only in whispers. (ISI denies any involvement.) On that occasion, too, the channel was mysteriously dropped by cable companies.
The army has not made any public statement about the latest ban. In private, the top brass deny that they have ordered Geo off the air. Instead they blame the cable companies, such as Wateen and WorldCall. Yet in private, cable operators freely admit to military pressure. According to a report in the Hindu, an Indian newspaper, those who refused to cut Geo were taken to safe houses and threatened.
Executives at the channel worry that this time the ban aims to put it out of business for good. The army has been trying to silence “all dissent”, says Ayesha Siddiqa, a political commentator, ahead of elections to be held this summer. Geo particularly angers the top brass by favouring a former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who says his ousting last year by the courts was also inspired by the army.
Geo is vulnerable partly because it lacks defenders. Officials from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) have mostly kept silent. “Where is the prime minister?” rages Mr Jawad. When ministers speak at all, they blame the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), a body largely under their control, for failing to force cable operators to restore the channel. In fact, the PML-N, like the opposition, is keener to kowtow to the army than to defend media freedom.
In previous eras, the courts might have stepped in. But the judiciary and the army have been getting on well of late. When Geo’s ban was brought up in the Supreme Court on April 16th, Saqib Nisar, the chief justice, lambasted the channel, which has been starved of advertising revenue, for failing to pay salaries. He sneered, incorrectly, that Mr Mir, the journalist who was shot, drove a Mercedes. On the same day the High Court in Lahore was indulging in some censorship of its own: a new ruling orders PEMRA to ensure that no channel airs any “anti-judiciary speeches” by PML-N leaders.
Pakistan’s boisterous media were once a bright spot in its unsteady democracy, but the current assault has sapped journalists’ spirits. “I am thinking of doing a cookery show tonight,” sighs Murtaza Solangi, a talk-show host, since so much else is off the menu. Reporting on the Pushtun Protection Movement, a tribal protest group that criticises human-rights abuses by the army, has been banned in print and on TV. “It is worse now than under direct military rule,” adds Mr Solangi.
Geo’s rivals are propped up by their owners’ investments in other industries. The Jang group, in contrast, is involved only in the media. It required big loans to survive its previous period out of favour. On April 17th the service went back on air in parts of the country. But journalists say managers have instructed them to be less critical of the courts and army and harder on Mr Sharif. It remains to be seen if Geo, whose name sounds like the Urdu for “live”, will come back as its vigorous old self, or in a zombified form.