ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan’s most popular private television network went back on the air Monday after signing a government code of conduct that critics say is muzzling independent media before parliamentary elections next month.
All stations banned by President Pervez Musharraf during his state of emergency in November are now broadcasting again, but concerns remain that the former general has whittled press freedoms as his loyalists campaign against parties opposed to his continued rule.
Among other things, the code bans live coverage of demonstrations and programs that “defame or ridicule” the head of state. It also says anchors and talk show hosts must not express opinions that threaten Pakistan’s sovereignty and security.
Musharraf’s administration said Geo TV was allowed to resume operations after agreeing to those guidelines.
The station declined to comment on whether there were any conditions, with its president saying only that the government’s lifting of the ban was “a wise and wonderful move.”
“As elections are coming up, more media coverage would make the elections more credible and contribute to the positive development of the country,” said Geo President Imran Aslam.
The international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said Geo agreed to stop running programs featuring two independent-minded commentators in return for the lifting of the ban.
“This constitutes yet further evidence that censorship is unfortunately still the rule just a few weeks before the parliamentary elections scheduled for Feb. 18,” the Paris-based group said in a statement.
Immediately after emergency rule was imposed, Geo was banned along with all private news networks, which had been reporting freely on growing challenges to Musharraf’s U.S.-backed rule as well as surging violence by Muslim extremists.
During a Monday speech in Brussels, Belgium, Musharraf urged the West to be less critical of his efforts, saying Pakistan needs time to achieve higher standards of human rights and civil liberties.
“You have taken centuries to reach it,” he said at the start of an eight-day European tour.