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Oct 21, 7:41 AM EDT

Pakistan pulls anti-government TV channel off air


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ISLAMABAD (AP) -- An anti-government TV news channel in Pakistan was taken off air for 15 days after a high court ruled that the broadcaster was "maligning" the country's judiciary, the country's media regulation authority said.

The closure is apparently linked to the infighting among Pakistan's numerous media outlets over their coverage of the two-month-long anti-government protests demanding Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif step down over alleged election fraud.

Most of the media have firmly aligned themselves either in support of Sharif's government or in favor of the opposition, providing plenty of fodder for bitter reports and opinionated talk show hosts.

The Pakistan Media Regulation Authority said on Tuesday that it was forced to act on a court order and shut down the private ARY News channel.

PEMRA also said the court banned one of the broadcaster's anchors, Mubashar Luqman, from appearing on any national TV. The ARY was also ordered to pay a fine of 10 million Pakistani Rupees, or $97,000.

The high court in the eastern city of Lahore acted on its own in taking up the case - what is known in legal terms as suo moto - and issued its ruling last week.

The CEO of ARY, Ammad Yousuf, criticized the ruling and said the TV would challenge PEMRA's move.

"The decision has been taken in haste without giving us a hearing," Yousuf told The Associated Press.

ARY has been taking a distinctly pro-opposition stance in its coverage of the protest rallies, which are led by Pakistan's famous cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri.

Luqman, the banned anchor, was a prominent participant in the rallies, sometimes appearing in public with Khan during the former cricket star's anti-government speeches outside the parliament.

Hundreds of supporters of Khan and Qadri have been camped for several weeks outside the Pakistani parliament in Islamabad.

ARY is said to have earned top ratings ever since it took up the popular anti-government narrative against its business rival Geo TV, which has long been Pakistan's most popular TV channel.

In June, PEMRA also banned Geo TV for 15 days after a spat between the broadcaster and the military's powerful spy agency, the ISI.

The intelligence agency had filed a suit against Geo TV, seeking its closure after it alleged that the spy agency chief was behind an assassination attempt against one of the station's anchors, Hamid Mir.

Sharif's government backed Geo TV at the time, and the station later sided with Sharif in its coverage of the protest rallies.

After decades of tight control over the media, Pakistan now has a vibrant journalism community with numerous television channels and newspapers that compete fiercely for readers and viewers.

The media have been especially focused on confrontations between Pakistan's executive branch, military and its judiciary.

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Associated Press Writer Zarar Khan contributed to this report from Islamabad.

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