Since yesterday evening, when the signals of AbbTakk TV, 24 News and Capital TV were suddenly suspended, cable viewers wanting to watch their news programmes have found this terse message: “This channel is currently unavailable due to a technical issue. Sorry for inconvenience.”
In fact, it is widely assumed they were deliberately removed at the behest of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), the all-powerful broadcast media regulator that takes its lead from the military establishment.
“We have been taken off cable network without any notice,” AbbTakk TV news director Shahab Mehmood, told RSF today “PEMRA gave no reason for taking this step.”
PEMRA had previously posted this bureaucratically-worded tweet at dawn on 7 July:
“PEMRA issues notices to TV channels for unedited live telecast of Maryam Nawaz’s press conference against judiciary and state institutions in violation of PEMRA laws and Code of Conduct.”
The tweet referred to the previous day’s press conference at which Maryam Nawaz, the daughter of now imprisoned former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and herself an opposition figure, produced a video showing a judge appearing to admit that he was pressured into convicting her father a year ago. The video’s authenticity has yet to be verified.
Najam Sethi, a well-known journalist who often works with 24 News, confirmed in a tweet that it was because of their coverage of Maryam Nawaz’s press conference that the three TV news channels were being taken off the air – “reportedly on orders from PEMRA.”
“This is an absolutely unacceptable violation of the principles of media pluralism and independence during a revelation that was clearly in the Pakistani public interest,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“We call on Prime Minister Imran Khan’s civilian government to take immediate steps to ensure that cable transmission of the three TV channels is restored. The recent surge in sudden acts of media censorship is exposing the current regime’s increasingly dictatorial nature.”
A week ago, political reporter Hamid Mir’s live interview with former President Asif Ali Zardari on Pakistan’s leading TV news channel, Geo News, was suddenly cut short when screens went blank.
Just over a year ago, transmission of Geo News and all of the four other channels owned by Geo TV was suspended for several days throughout at least 80% of the country in an apparent reprisal for its overly independent news coverage. No official suspension order ever emerged but the military were widely blamed because they control the network distribution cables in every district.
Pakistan is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index, three places lower than in 2018.