The case failed to draw that much attention but, as 2016 drew to a close, a court in London convicted the owners of ARY News of slander and libel and awarded $3.7m in damages to the plaintiff, Geo TV.
What set this case apart was the fact that a British court was ruling on a squabble between two of the biggest media players in Pakistan.
The very public battle between Geo TV and ARY has been characterized as a low point for the Pakistani news media.
The TV news sector in Pakistan has exploded in size in the 15 years since the days of only one, state-owned domestic channel. But the quality of the journalism often gives way to sensationalism and irresponsible reporting, and, in this case, reckless accusations of blasphemy.
Some see the conflict between GEO and ARY as a kind proxy war for a larger struggle, involving the Pakistani powers that be – over who really controls the country.
The Listening Post’s Meenakshi Ravi reports on a slightly complicated media story that reveals much about politics and power in Pakistan.
“The competition was rooted in how well the channels themselves were performing…but over time, it morphed into something way more ugly, way more public,” says Sadaf Khan, director of programmes, Media Matters for Democracy.
April 2014 marked a turning point in the competition between the two channels.
An attempt on the life of Geo News’ most prominent anchor, Hamid Mir, put the journalist and his channel on a collision course with the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI. Mir had reported extensively on the agency and said he was convinced it was behind the attack.
This wasn’t the first time the ISI was accused of targeting a journalist.
In 2011, investigative reporter Saleem Shahzad was kidnapped and then found dead in north-east Pakistan. Shahzad had documented three warnings from the ISI, letting him know his work had put him on their radar.
Now, three years later, the Mir case put the lingering issue of alleged rogue operations of the ISI back in the headlines, and ARY waded into the debate.
When ARY backed the ISI, it ostensibly aligned itself with the intelligence community and the military – the Pakistani establishment.
Geo, on the other hand, was seen to be allied with the elected government.
“The GEO-ARY debacle was perceived to be a proxy war between the establishment and the government of Pakistan,” explains Munizae Jahangir, senior anchor & executive producer, AAJ Television.
ARY News made it personal by accusing GEO TV owner Mir Shakil ur Rahman of taking money from Indian intelligence and using it to defame and discredit Pakistan.
Such accusations can get you killed in Pakistan.
“One of the main allegations was that we had run this campaign for peace between India and Pakistan, which was a media-led campaign, the Times of India, and The Jang Group had come together. This was completely an initiative that was funded entirely by ourselves – we had absolutely no funding from any international organisation, let alone intelligence agencies, and, and yet, continuously, documents were waved on the screen,” says GEO TV President Imran Aslam.
“The editorial stance taken by our channels on various issues are different…However if you work on the behest of any government or you ally yourself with a government, then your journalism is flawed and the Jang and Geo group’s output are perfect examples of this,” says ARY News host Arshad Sharif.
ARY reported that Rahman has escaped to Dubai with the active collusion of elements of the Pakistani government.
“Blasphemy accusations in Pakistan leads to vigilante justice,” says Khan.
Thus Geo TV and the Jang Group took their case against ARY News to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) and the Pakistani courts. Those cases dragged on and are still pending.
Exasperated by the slow pace of justice, Geo turned to Britain’s legal system to clear their name.
As a result, ARY had to pay $3.7m to Geo.
Has this case stopped slandering and libel?
“It hasn’t,” says Jahangir.
Pakistan’s private TV outlets are still growing in number but the quality of the journalism falls well short of the quantity of the output.
The spectacle of two channels bickering, on the air and in the courts, does neither of them credit. It hints at a state of crisis in Pakistan’s news broadcasting space, probably the most influential medium in a strategically important country. And that’s not good news.
Sadaf Khan, director of programmes, Media Matters for Democracy
Munizae Jahangir, senior anchor & executive producer, AAJ Television
Imran Aslam, president, Geo TV
Arshad Sharif, host, ARY News
Source: Al Jazeera