AS if reports of a widespread blackout of a news channel across various parts of Pakistan over the past few weeks were not troubling enough, Minister for Interior Ahsan Iqbal’s assertion that neither the information ministry nor Pemra is behind this move (which was subsequently corroborated by both institutions) is cause for considerable alarm.

While this is not the first time that Geo News has been abruptly pulled off air, the current suspension demonstrates an increasingly sophisticated form of media censorship in its clandestine circumvention of institutional mandate and denial of due process.

Who, then, consider themselves above the laws of this land?

The fact that most affected areas appear to be military-run cantonments and housing authorities, and the forces behind the clampdown remain hidden, invites conjecture.

But what is clear is that, while the electronic media is certainly accountable to Pemra’s code of conduct and the public’s interest, it cannot be made to answer to shadows.

In this regard, the regulatory authority must exert itself more forcefully, not just to ensure that cable operators resume Geo’s transmission, but to investigate and reveal the elements behind this unconstitutional act.

As a democratic polity, Pakistan’s people have an unassailable right to the freedoms of information and expression, a key pillar of which is an independent press.

Imperfect as our political and media landscapes might be, they are the result of local struggles, not foreign agendas.

Eroding this hard-won yet fragile space through conspiracy-mongering, coercion and a proliferation of abstruse ‘red lines’ is made all the more easier when there is disunity among media groups that prioritise competing interests over safeguarding press freedom.

There should be no prevarications; Pakistan’s media must collectively draw its own line in the sand and stand ready to defend it.

Today, Geo is in the crosshairs, but the failure of others to call out and resist such intimidation now could threaten to destabilise the entire institution of journalism in Pakistan tomorrow.

Published in Dawn, April 4th, 2018

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