Islamabad : Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf Monday responded to growing concern about government censorship by according state media regulator sweeping new powers to act against television channels deemed to be in breach of codes of conduct.
Under a presidential ordinance amending existing media laws, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) can now seize equipment, seal premises and suspend a broadcaster's licence.
The move came as journalists, lawyers and opposition supporters staged a planned protest outside PEMRA's offices in Islamabad over its obstruction of coverage of the country's three-month-old judicial crisis.
The ordinance for three months and can be extended by the president.
Several companies recently had their transmissions disrupted, while the Aaj private channel – which has exhaustively covered the suspension of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry by Musharraf – was completely silenced for three days.
"The government has sent a clear-cut message to the owners of TV channels to even close down debate programmes where criticism of the government is possible," said Afzal Butt, general secretary of the Islamabad Union of Journalists.
The crisis around Chaudhry's suspension in March for alleged misconduct has snowballed into a broad opposition movement to military rule by Musharraf, who came to power in a coup in 1999.
While newspapers and television channels have flourished under Musharraf in recent years, the government's concern at the rapid politicisation of the Chaudhry case has brought a backlash against media. A number of journalists have also received anonymous threats.
"The judicial crisis was the first test of the government's claim to have free media – and it failed," said political analyst Ayaz Amir.
"The amendments show that the government cannot afford to have an independent media, at least in the current crisis," he added.
State-orchestrated disruptions to media intensified Saturday during an appearance by Chaudhry in the northern city of Abbotabad. A ban was imposed on live television coverage of the visit, which drew tens of thousands of the judge's supporters onto the streets.
PEMRA simultaneously sent letters to channels, calling upon them not to air programmes that "encourage" violence or promote an "anti-state attitude".
The authority on Monday denied it had ordered the blockage of TV channels, saying the cable operators were doing so at their own discretion. But a major operator in Islamabad said it had been directly told to block Aaj for several days.
A "black day" will also be observed on June 7 by journalist groups to protest growing curbs on media. Rallies will be held across the country, organisers said.