| The damaged office of the private Geo TV channel in Islamabad. (AP)
Islamabad, March 16 (Reuters): Pakistani riot police stormed a private television channel’s offices and tear-gassed employees after its editors refused to stop broadcasting pictures of protests in Islamabad over moves to sack the country’s top judge.
Elsewhere in Islamabad, police fired teargas and detained about 150 Opposition activists as protesters took to the streets.
Geo news bureau chief Hamid Mir, who later received a televised apology from President Pervez Musharraf, said the police broke windows, scuffled with staff and released teargas in the office, as the hearing against Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary resumed in the nearby supreme court.
“They tried to drag me out,” Mir said on air during the raid. “They’re demanding a camera installed on the roof should be removed.”
The channel was able to broadcast live pictures of the helmeted police carrying shields and batons bursting into the channel’s building, and Geo vehicles parked outside were damaged.
Strategically located at an intersection covering routes to the presidency building, the supreme court and National Assembly, Geo’s rooftop camera had a panoramic view of the anti-government demonstrations, and had been broadcasting pictures for hours.
Musharraf condemned the police violence in a telephone interview with Mir and promised action against those responsible.
“I would like to tell the nation, main strength of my reforms are, these are freedom of peace, freedom of expression, freedom of media. this is our mandate, supremacy of human rights, this is also our mandate. So violation of these, I strongly condemn it.”
But the extraordinary scenes will severely damage any notions the media operates freely in Pakistan, even though the media industry has flourished since Musharraf came to power after a military coup in 1999.
More than 100 journalists gathered outside the Geo building shouting slogans against the government after the police raid. The neighbouring office of The News daily which, like Geo, belongs to the Jang group, was also damaged by police.
A panel of judges considering the case against Chaudhary at a hearing at the supreme court ordered restrictions on him be lifted, Chaudhary’s lawyers said. Chaudhary, who refused to resign, has been confined to his home since his March 9 suspension.
The US state department said today Pakistani police and demonstrators should “exercise the utmost degree of restraint” to avoid violence.