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High Court approves of ongoing broadcasting suspensions imposed on four television stations

(IFJ/IFEX) - The following is an IFJ media release:

Pakistan High Court keeps GEO-TV off air

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) is extremely concerned by a decision of the High Court of Sindh to dismiss two petitions by the owners of GEO Television network challenging bans imposed on four of its news, sports and entertainment channels after emergency rule was decreed on 3 November.

After 19 days of hearings, the court agreed yesterday with the Government's argument, led by the caretaker Deputy Attorney-General, Rizwan Ahmed Siddiqui, that the petitions had no legal or constitutional validity. It agreed that President Pervez Musharraf's emergency declaration suspended and overrode all rights, including the right to conduct business. Mr. Siddiqui argued successfully that GEO's petitions were therefore "non-maintainable".

"It is very disturbing to see the High Court rule that basic rights, such as freedom of expression, can easily be overridden," said IFJ Asia-Pacific Director Jacqueline Park. "Under all circumstances, the rights of journalists and media institutions to engage in free and fair reporting must be protected and defended."

In court, GEO argued that the Government had singled out the network and was obstructing its right to conduct business. It stressed that it had paid its landing rights licence fees of Rs 3.5 million (about US$60,000) and it had not received written orders regarding the bans.

The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), an IFJ affiliate, said the court's decision puts in jeopardy the jobs of some 1,200 employees at GEO because the inability to broadcast has severely dented advertising revenue. "In dismissing the petitions, a message has been given that the Government is not interested in putting GEO back on air any time soon," the PFUJ said.

GEO initially circumvented the bans by transmitting from its Dubai offices. However, under pressure from Pakistan, Dubai authorities shut down GEO in that country in mid-November. The IFJ was alarmed that the "censorship pact" with Dubai had allowed Pakistan to reach outside its borders to stifle independent media.

The court hearing arises from restrictions imposed on all broadcasters in Pakistan within hours of the emergency declaration. Most TV and radio stations have gradually resumed broadcasting, although Royal TV and radio FM-99 and FM-103 remain off air. Some media outlets reportedly signed a government-mandated code of conduct promoted by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulation Authority (PEMRA). GEO refuses to sign the code.

The IFJ and the PFUJ have spoken out strongly against the PEMRA code because it is not built on the principle of independent and free media and includes a provision that journalists exercise self-censorship on political matters.

The IFJ joins the PFUJ in calling on the President to take action to permit GEO to resume broadcasting without hindrance.

The IFJ represents over 600,000 journalists in 120 countries.

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