LONDON: The chair of the UK Parliament’s cross-party group on Pakistan says the 15-day suspension of Geo license by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) and the illegal shutdown of all Go family channels is “disproportionate and unfair to the original offence”.
Andrew Stephenson MP expressed deep reservations about the illegal shutdown of Geo family channels and state-sponsored attacks against Jang and Geo properties and employees by the state and non-state actors who have acted in unison against Geo following the coverage of attack on Geo anchor Hamid Mir.
He said it must be ensured that sanctions are proportionate and also reasonable for what was done. “All media organisations will form time to time sail close to the winds and push the boundaries and the powers-that-be will feel that they have overstepped the mark. However, when that does happen then the banning, fine, sanctions, penalties should be limited and proportionate to the offence committed.
“In the case of Geo, you could quite legitimately argue that the penalties currently being imposed are disproportionate and unfair to the original offence.” Andrew Stephenson MP said it’s very worrying that Geo had been shut down because “freedom of the press is very vital, particularly in Pakistan where there are a range of different opinions on how the country should be run”.
The Conservative Party MP, who has visited Pakistan several times and has advocated Pakistan’s case in the UK parliament with vigour, said: “It’s a real concern that Geo has been taken off the air” and called on the Government of Pakistan to ensure that freedom of the press is upheld in Pakistan.
“What we will be saying to Pakistan is that we are keen to work with Pakistan to ensure that there is a free press, that there is a press that’s free to tackle issues without any fear of persecution or prosecution. Even if there has been a mistake in this case, the Geo has apologised for the mistakes and that should be the end the matter and not the end of the organisation and the livelihood of so many people.
“Geo should be able to continue functioning and be able to broadcast a range of opinions in Pakistan and help with the growing civil society and press freedom that we have in Pakistan at the moment.
The MP from Pendle expressed concern that some elements created hatred against Geo on religious grounds and went on to register blasphemy cases against the channel. He said this was “very dangerous”.
The MP added: “The blasphemy laws in Pakistan have been in place for many years but we have seen in recent years that these laws have been used to persecute Christians, Muslims, minorities and recently the persecution of organisations and we have seen that these laws have been used against media organisations. The fact that blasphemy laws have been used against media organisations like Geo in order to silence them seems a very worrying development.”
The chair of the UK Parliament’s cross-party group on Pakistan said the UK saw Nawaz Sharif as its ally and British PM David Cameron has been very clear that “we want to work with Pakistan and in this govt the amount of aid has been boosted to Pakistan” and the Conservative party parliamentarians, such as Sajjad Karim MEP, have been working hard to develop close trade links between Pakistan and the European Union (EU).
He stressed that Pakistan “has to really look to foster civil society and support free press” and the government has to take lead on all these issues.
“We cannot interfere in the running of the country or the govt but we will hopefully encourage and support Pakistan in supporting freedom of press,” he said, adding that it’ important for any government to have a free press that challenges those in power and helps maintain check and balance.
Andrew Stephenson MP said it will be very worrying and a “matter of grave concern if any media organisation in Pakistan is banned in perpetuity. I think that will be a retrogressive step and an extremely negative thing to happen and at a time when we are seeing so many positive things coming out of Pakistan”.
He said: “It’s positive news that Pakistan’s economy is picking up, trade with the EU is going up. We are seeing so many positive things about the future of the country but if see a media organisation being closed down then that will be a very worrying thing”.
The MP said there are many vested groups in Pakistan that “want to stifle media, free expression and want to close down media that promote debate”.
He said Pakistan needs liberal media to not only challenge the government, but also to help project a “whole range of opinions” and that will not happen if “free expression is not guaranteed without fear of being persecuted”.
Andrew Stephenson MP said Britain gives aid to Pakistan for poverty alleviation and doesn’t want to attach any strings to it but does want Pakistan to “improve links with the civil society, the democratic functions and to stamp out corruption”.
The Conservative MP cautioned that the government must ensure media freedoms. He added: “If as a country we feel that it’s not making progress and slipping backwards in terms of issues of press freedom, corruption and if these issues become worse then we will have to revisit the decisions of some of the projects we have in the country”.