Islamabad : Pakistani journalists were due to hold a rally here Monday in protest against sweeping powers of state media regulators that have obstructed television coverage of the country's three-month-old judicial crisis.
Several companies had their transmissions intermittently blocked, while the Aaj private channel, which has exhaustively covered the suspension of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry by President Pervez Musharraf, was 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.
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 crowds of thousands of the judge's supporters.
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) simultaneously sent letters to channels calling upon them not to air programmes that "encourage" violence or promote an "anti-state attitude".
Journalists planned to stage a torch-bearing procession in the evening ending at the PEMRA offices in Islamabad. They were to be joined by right activists and representatives of various civil society organisations.
The regulator Monday denied that it had ordered the blockage of TV channels, saying the cable operators were doing so at their own discretion. But a major operator here said it had been directly told to block Aaj for several days.
A "black day" will also be observed June 7 by journalist groups to protest growing curbs on media. Rallies will be held across the country, the organisers said.
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 flourished under Musharraf in recent years, the government's concern at the rapid politicisation of the Chaudhry case has seen a backlash against media. A number of journalists have also received anonymous threats.