Pakistan ministry demands television station shutdown in shooting row

ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Pakistan's defence ministry has asked for the country's top-rating television channel to be shut down after it broadcast allegations blaming an intelligence agency for shooting a leading journalist, officials said Wednesday.

The ministry wrote to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) late on Tuesday asking it to cancel the broadcasting licence of Geo television and take legal action against its staff.

The move comes after Geo aired claims that Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency was behind the shooting of top anchor Hamid Mir in Karachi on Saturday.

Mr Mir, who hosts a primetime current affairs chat show on Geo and is probably Pakistan's best-known journalist, is currently recovering after being shot at least three times in his car. After the attack Geo aired comments by Mr Mir's brother Amir Mir, also a journalist, saying the ISI was to blame.

The defence ministry's letter, seen by AFP, accused Geo of a "vicious campaign libellous and scandalous in nature" and said the channel was trying to undermine the integrity of an important state institution.

Information Minister Pervez Rashid said Geo could defend the allegations when PEMRA starts hearing both parties to the complaint.

No-one has claimed responsibility for shooting Mr Mir, who escaped another attempt on his life last year when a bomb was found attached to his car.

Mr Mir has in the past criticised the Taleban and also Pakistan's armed forces, and media campaign group Reporters Without Borders said he had told it on April 7 that the ISI was "conspiring... to cause me harm".

The row comes at a delicate time for Pakistan's civilian-military balance, with former army chief general Pervez Musharraf on trial for treason.

Some observers see the government's pursuit of the charges against Musharraf, relating to his 1999-2008 rule, as an attempt to assert civilian dominance once and for all.

The country has been ruled for more than half its life by the military, most recently under Musharraf, and the armed forces still hold great influence.

But Pakistan's freewheeling private media, ironically liberalised by Musharraf, has increasingly shown itself willing to challenge the military, once considered off-limits to criticism.

Reporters Without Borders welcomed the government's decision to set up a commission to investigate the Mir shooting but warned it must lead to concrete action.

"Although shocking, this attack unfortunately comes as no surprise," said Benjamin Ismaïl, head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk.

"Hamid Mir has been the constant target of press freedom's enemies, starting with the Taleban and the intelligence agencies." Last month another high-profile presenter, Raza Rumi, survived a murder bid by gunmen in the eastern city of Lahore, in which his driver was killed.