Journalist bodies and human rights organisations on Monday condemned the move to take veteran journalist and TV show host Hamid Mir "off air".
Mir told BBC Urdu he had been informed by the Geo News management that he would "not go on air on Monday" to host his five-days-a-week show Capital Talk.
Although there was no official comment from Geo News, sources from the channel's management confirmed to Dawn.com that Mir has been sent on forced leave for some time.
The TV channel's administration had earlier confirmed the same to BBC Urdu, which quoted officials as saying that Mir would not host his talk show from Monday (today) and that "he has been sent on leave for some time".
The management said Mir was still associated with the Jang Media Group; another anchorperson has reportedly been asked to host the programme in place of Mir for now.
Mir, the longtime host of the popular Capital Talk, had just days earlier delivered a fiery speech in Islamabad calling for accountability for repeated assaults on journalists in the country. He was speaking at a protest against the recent attack on journalist and YouTuber Asad Ali Toor.
"The management asked me to either explain or refute the speech outside the [National] Press Club," Mir told BBC Urdu, adding that he asked in return "Who is asking you for this?"
"I told them if they arrest the persons who attacked Asad Toor then I am ready to apologise, let alone issue an explanation," the journalist said.
Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry, meanwhile, without addressing Mir or Geo, tweeted in the evening that the government had nothing to do with the internal decisions of organisations.
"Broadcasters themselves decide which programme they have to broadcast and what its team will be," said Chaudhry, adding that all institutions were responsible for devising their policies under Article 19 of the Constitution.
Earlier in the day, as reports started circulating that Mir would no longer host his show, the anchor via a tweet said that a ban would be "nothing new for me".
"I was banned twice in the past. Lost jobs twice. Survived assassination attempts but cannot stop raising voice for the rights given in the Constitution. This time I am ready for any consequences and ready to go at any extent because they are threatening my family," he wrote, refraining from naming anyone.
While talking to BBC, Mir alleged that his wife and daughter had been threatened, while his brother had been summoned by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) in some old case.
Dawn.com has made repeated attempts to contact Mir for a comment.
In 2014, Mir was critically wounded in a gun attack in Karachi.
As the news continued to make rounds on social media, condemnations by rights bodies followed, including from the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), Amnesty International South Asia and Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) — all of which were shared by Mir on his official Twitter account.
PFUJ strongly condemned the "ban" on Mir, saying: "The Geo management should let the journalist fraternity know what prompted them to take such a decision within 72 hours of Hamid Mir's speech in front of the National Press Club on Friday where he condemned non-democratic forces for lodging attacks on media persons and Asad Toor."
The body, in a statement, termed the move an attack on the freedom of expression and press.
"First journalists are attacked and when media persons protest against such attacks, the government employs fascist tactics to silence them," it said, warning of protests outside Geo offices if Mir's show was not "restored".
Amnesty International South Asia said the "punitive action of taking [Mir] off the air following a speech at a protest calling for accountability for an attack on [Toor] severely undermines the responsibility media outlets and authorities have to protect free speech in an already repressive environment".
"Censorship, harassment and physical violence must not be the price journalists pay to do their jobs," it stressed.
Mir "must be allowed to resume his professional duties immediately and the threats against him investigated", urged HRCP.
"That Mr Mir has been promptly silenced and his family allegedly threatened is now a tipping point for freedom — and one that will not be resolved through the optics of law-making in the shape of the long touted and heavily criticised journalists' protection bill," it said in a statement.
PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz too criticised the decision, saying banning Mir's programme's was "not the solution but giving rise to further difficulties and problems for oneself".
"It will not extinguish the fire but add inflame it further. But who can explain?" she tweeted.
Protest against attack on journalist
Toor was severely beaten up by unidentified assailants outside his residence in Islamabad's Sector F-10 on May 25.
According to police, some people had gathered outside Toor’s residence located in an apartment building. A scuffle took place between him and these people who fled the scene after thrashing him.
Subsequently, he registered a complaint with the police, who are investigating the incident.
On Friday, journalist organisations held protest demonstrations against the attack on Toor and growing incidents of violence against journalists. A number of prominent journalists, politicians and civil society activists attended the protest in Islamabad and spoke against assaults on members of the media industry.
In a strongly worded speech at the protest, Mir accused non-democratic forces of being behind the incident and warned of retaliation if attacks on journalists continued.
He said he would start to gradually speak up and "whoever wants to get me fired can do it because if I am fired I will get freedom, and I will use that to unmask your faces".
"You are not unknown," Mir had said referring to those he held responsible and condemned the allegations that Toor had concocted the whole incident to get political asylum.
He also highlighted that multiple journalists had been picked up or harassed by unknown persons in recent times while many had been labelled "traitors".
Soon after clips of Mir's speech went viral, hashtags in favour and against Mir started trending on Twitter in Pakistan; as many called for him to be fired or arrested, others applauded him on his speech.
The next day, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in a statement said the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the country’s premier spy agency, had “totally disassociated” itself from the attack on Toor.
The statement said that a “high-level contact” was established between the ministry and the ISI over the incident in which a digital media journalist was “allegedly attacked” in Islamabad and the ISI had stated that it had nothing to do with the incident.
“Such continued allegations against ISI show that the ISI is being a target of the fifth generation war under an organised conspiracy,” said the statement, issued a day after journalist organisations held protest demonstrations against the growing incidents of attacks on journalists.