LAHORE/KARACHI/ISLAMABAD: An accountability court on Friday granted 12-day physical remand of Jang/Geo Group Editor-in-Chief Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman to the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) in a 34-year-old property case. The second part of crackdown against the Jang-Geo group unfolded immediately after Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan’spress conference on the arrest of Editor-in-Chief of the Jang/Geo Media Group ended on Friday, when the cable operators started receiving directions to shut down the Geo TV’s broadcast or shift the channel to the last numbers, making the channel next target on the second day after its chief was unfairly arrested.
The Jang/Geo Group editor-in-chief was brought to the accountability court under heavy security. A large contingent of police and other security officials were present outside the courtroom as Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman was brought for the hearing.
At the outset of the hearing, Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan tendered his power of attorney on the behalf of Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman and requested the court to allow him to meet his client in isolation. Accountability Court No 1 Presiding Officer Ch Ameer Muhammad Khan accepted the request and adjourned the hearing for half an hour.
As the hearing resumed after the break, Aitzaz questioned why his client had not been shown his arrest warrants. He told the court the NAB has not issued any notice to Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman and the bureau did not hold the authority to make an arrest in the case without concrete evidence. “The NAB chief signed the arrest warrants of Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman. We have still not been provided a copy of those warrants,” Aitzaz reminded the courtroom. “Arresting Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman in a 34-year-old case proves mala fide intentions of the bureau. The property in question was bought by Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman from a third-party and the LDA was not involved,” Aitzaz said, dismissing the allegations against his client.
“My client did not commit any wrongdoing in the purchase of the property. He was only arrested because his name is Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman,” Aitzaz argued. “Some people never get tired of speaking against my client. The legal procedures were not even completed before my client was arrested in this case. This proves mala fide intention of the bureau,” he added.
“Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman was summoned by the NAB on February 28, and he appeared before it. He was asked to appear again on March 12, and he did so again. How did he break the law in any way?” Aitzaz asked. “On March 12, the NAB did not listen to answers my client had provided in reply to an earlier inquiry. They just said that on the orders of the NAB chief, you are being placed under arrest,” Aitzaz said. He pointed out that the investigation officer and the NAB chairman violated the policy as the warrants for arrest were issued without application of mind and perusal of record. He contended that the transaction took place between the accused and the real owners of the land and that cannot be taken as offence because exemption of plots was their right as per law and policy for the development of Johar Town. He said liberty of citizens is supreme and could not be curtailed on flimsy charges.
He argued that the policy determined by the authority would be deemed binding upon the investigating officer of the NAB as per the dictum laid down by the superior courts. And the departure of NAB authorities from the policy determined regarding the arrest of a businessman was a violation of a Supreme Court order. Aitzaz referred to Article 10(4) of the Constitution, saying that it guaranteed the right of fair trial and due process but both fundamental rights were denied to Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman.
He said Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman could not be arrested straightaway as logically the application of mind by the NAB chairman was not possible. He requested the court to discharge Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman from the cases as no offence was made out against him.
The court then asked NAB Prosecutor Hafiz Asadullah to detail out why the bureau placed Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman under arrest. “We started investigations against Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman in December 2019,” Asadullah said. “When Nawaz Sharif was the chief minister, Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman obtained exemption of 54 plots from him,” he alleged. “Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman illegally obtained monetary benefits from the transaction. He could not provide us with records related to these plots,” he added.
Upon this, the counsel for Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman reminded the prosecutor that an Islamabad High Court order issued last week had clearly stated that if an individual is cooperating with inquiry, he should not be placed under arrest.
However, after hearing the arguments of both sides, the court handed Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman over to the NAB on 12-day physical remand and postponed proceedings in the case until March 25. The court ruled that it was first requested by the NAB for a physical remand and grounds of arrest was also mentioned. Section 24 of the National Accountability Ordinance 1999 empowered the court for grant of physical remand. However, such remand could not be stretched beyond 15 days at a time.
The court observed that an exemption granted beyond 30 per cent quota by a public office-holder needs inquiry. The court, however, observed that under Section 24 of the NAO 1999, direction to arrest was the prerogative of the NAB chairman and certainly the same should be based upon the material available with him, justifying an arrest. The court ruled that the perusal of record showed that Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman has yet to explain the extraordinary exemption in his favour by the then chief minister. The court directed the NAB to produce Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman on March 25.
Earlier, while speaking to the media, Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman said the NAB had refused to listen to his answers when he appeared for the March 12 hearing. “I was issued a notice two days ago that asked me to come to the NAB office with everything [documents related to the inquiry],” he told reporters.
“I appeared before the NAB. I told them that I have brought written answers and would respond to all their queries. I was asked additional questions, to which I replied. The NAB did not listen to my answers. They have a recording of my answers and I wish that recording is released to the media. This is the second time I was not heard by the accountability body,” he added.
Karachi News Desk adds: Immediately after Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan’s press conference on the arrest of Editor-in-Chief of the Jang/Geo Media Group, Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, ended on Friday, cable operators started receiving directions to shut down Geo TV’s broadcast or shift the channel to the last numbers. However, many of them refused to bow down, saying that they had not received the orders in writing.
Imran Aslam, President GEO and Jang Group, said, “Now its clear the plot is not a plot but a larger canvas…only those will push Geo back who want to push back the truth who have something to hide, only those will push Geo back who want the public, “you”, to be denied their right to information. This is a pushback against your right to know not just Geo.”
The channel was shifted to the last numbers in various cities and its broadcast was also disrupted immediately after Dr Firdous’ presser. The Director News, Geo News, Rana Jawad, said that the directives to cable operators came from the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA). “Cable operators are being asked to change Geo’s position [on TV channel numbers]. Throwing the channel to the last numbers means shutting down its broadcast,” he said.
Jawad said these instructions were also given to the main cable operator in Islamabad and no legal basis was provided for the action. He said that PEMRA was threatening to take legal action against cable operators who did not comply with the instructions. He said that Geo tried to contact PEMRA chairman for a clarification on the matter but he could not be reached. Jawad said that a cable operators in Islamabad had shifted Geo from number 7 to 71 and that cable operators in other cities were following suit. “This is being done at a time when the Editor-in-Chief of the Jang Group/Geo has been arrested by NAB,” he said. “This [censorship] is a manifestation of the conspiracy to shut down, silence and end media,” he added. He said that MSR’s arrest and the subsequent censorship of Geo shows that the two events were linked to each other, so that the largest media group in the country could be silenced and its voice does not reach the masses.
Meanwhile, PEMRA Chairman Muhammad Saleem said he did not issue any directives to shut down Geo’s broadcast or shift the channel to the last numbers in various cities across the country.
However, the Pemra has served a show cause notice on Geo News and asked it to stop repeating what it called the Pemra law violations and abstain from airing any programme on sub-judice or under trial matter.
The chief executive officer has been asked to show cause within seven days of issuance of the notice as to why appropriate action may not be taken against the channel for these violations. Likewise, the licensee is also directed to appear for personal hearing on March 20, 2020 at 11:00am, through its CEO in person or through an authorised representative before the Authority.
“In case of non-compliance, ex-parte decision shall be made against your channel under Section 27, 29, 30 and 33 of Pemra (Amendment) Act, 2007,” it says.
The notice has addressed the chief executive officer of Geo News, which says that the channel has been found airing since Thursday unipolarity of views in its news bulletins and programmes. Persistently, under investigation-trial matters are being discussed and criticised, which is barred under Pemra laws.
“Prima facie, the conduct of the channel is prejudicial, biased and is considered as abuse of media power. It is also considered to be a serious breach of trust for using platform which is meant to educate and nurture minds of viewers with political acumen and plurality of views,” the notice says.
The Authority says that Geo News has been issued several show cause notices/advisories on airing discussion on sub-judice matters. “It is astonishing that despite repeated directions of the Authority, the channel is deliberately violating Pemra laws,” it said.
Meanwhile, the Karachi Union of Journalists (KUJ) has strongly condemned the closure of Geo TV broadcast and relegating the private TV channel position to the last numbers on the cable, calling it blatant action of strangulating the free media voice. “We know how the channel position is meddled with by the cable operators on the verbal orders of the authorities. It is highly condemnable to punish the Geo TV for its free voice,” said Ashraf Khan, the President of KUJ.
He said that the arrest of Rahman was, though appears to be related to private transactions in the real estate, but the timing of the arrest remains highly intriguing as the Pakistani media is striving for its survival amid coercive laws and stringent measures by the government and state institutions.
“Apparently Rahman’s arrest can be perceived as an act of law in connection with some property dispute, but the matter raises grave concerns if contextualized in the prevailing overall anti-media campaign in the country,” Ahmed Malik, General Secretary KUJ, said. “We strongly condemn the arrest of Rahman and stand by him, but we are also obliged to pay attention to the miserable condition of our fellow journalists in the Jang Group and Geo TV.”
The KUJ also demanded of the government and the parliamentarians to raise their voices against laws being forged to muzzle the free media in the country. “How can one imagine a free democracy in the country without the existence of a free press,” Malik said. The KUJ demanded bringing to an end murders, attacks, and bashing of journalists with impunity and an effective safety and security law for journalists must be tabled in the parliament to ensure and promote healthy democratic culture in the country.
Meanwhile, the journalist community took to Twitter on Friday to disapprove the federal government’s move to force cable operators to relegate the Geo News to the last numbers on their network following the press conference by special adviser to prime minister on information and broadcasting, Firdous Ashiq Awan, earlier in the day.
Murtaza Solangi, executive editor of the NayadaurMedia, tweeted that “11 years ago, on March 14, 2009, when some channel positions were changed without her consent, [Sherry Rehman, the then information minister] @sherryrehman had resigned in protest and chose to stay in wilderness for quite sometimes. Today Information Minister finishes a threatening presser and Geo gets blocked. #Difference.”
Hamid Mir, journalist and the host of Geo News programme “Capital Talk”, wrote “Cable operators receiving calls from [Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority] PEMRA to shut down @geonews_urdu or throw them on last numbers both NAB and PEMRA claim they are independent but they are actually trying to silence the voice of independent media to please someone #JournalismNotCrime.”
Nasim Zehra, journalist and host of the Channel 24 programme “Nasim Zehra @ 8”, wrote, “Strong condemnation of this move against #Geo. We at @24NewsHD have repeatedly faced this desperate & illegal move by PEMRA- for months. @24NewsHD has been shifted 2 the last numbers-that has not stopped us from trying r best 2 remain professional/ethical.”
Amber Rahim Shamsi, journalist and host of Samaa TV’s programme “Sawaal with Amber Shamsi”, wrote “Geo has been shifted to 24 on @NayatelOfficial.”
Talat Aslam, senior editor of The News International, also shared a similar experience: “Geo News has suddenly vanished from my Storm Fiber cable. Used to be on number four till earlier today but it’s been replaced by Sach TV. Checked all 200 channels but it’s nowhere to be found.”