Dubai Shuts Down Independent Pakistan TV Station Under Pressure

The Dubai offices of Pakistan's independent Geo TV station were shut down at midnight by a phone call from the Emirati government under heavy pressure from the Pakistan, said the group's executive director on Saturday.

Geo TV, one of Pakistan's most popular independent TV stations, has broadcast from Dubai since 2002 precisely to avoid the periodic crackdowns on media, such as the one just instituted by Gen. Pervez Musharraf when he declared martial law on Nov. 3.

"It was on short notice, just two hours before, from a Dubai Media City official who said that transmission has to stop at midnight," said Shahid Massood, Geo Group executive director from Dubai.

"I was the last voice our viewers heard yesterday — 15 minutes before blackout, I went on air and informed viewers about this sad moment in media history in Pakistan," he added.

Massood attributed the decision by the government-owned Dubai Media City, which hosts dozens of media organizations, including CNN and a number of Arab satellite channels, to the Pakistani government.

"The pressure was so intense from Gen. Musharraf," he said. "It's an unfortunate moment in Pakistan's history, especially considering the country is in such turmoil."

Emirati government officials as well as those from the Dubai Media City could not be reached for comment, but the code of the media city prohibits organizations it hosts to interfere with the politics of another country.

Other news organizations in the tax-free zone, which was built in effort to turn Dubai into a regional media hub, declined to comment about Geo's shut down. Domestic media, in the booming emirate, is strictly controlled.

"We picked this place because we were free to work from here," said Shahid, noting that together with CNN they were one of the first television stateions to set up shop in the media zone.

"We picked this place because we were free to work from here," he added. "This is total censorship, a total blackout.

GEO news is now broadcasting a continuous video of a thunderstorm at sea, with its logo floating on the choppy waves. It said in a statement that it had made the decision after receiving word that the Pakistan government had used its influence with a foreign country to close it down.

"We reported everything, if there was an attack on Benazir Bhutto, we reported it, if there was martial law, we reported it," said Massood. "People relied on our coverage from Dubai."

He also estimated the station was losing millions of dollars a day in lost advertising revenue.

The television news landscape has changed dramatically since Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup, when the only available option to viewers was state-run Pakistan TV. Twenty independent stations have sprung up since then.

The move came even as the government engaged in a number of face-saving measures ahead of a senior U.S. diplomat's arrival, including the release of a prominent rights activist, the release of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto from house arrest and several opposition television news stations were allowed back on the air.

Massood said meetings were planned with media city officials to discuss getting the station back on the air.