ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — President Pervez Musharraf relaxed his chokehold on Pakistan's airwaves Monday, allowing the nation's largest and most popular television network back on the air 79 days after he forced it to go dark.
But Geo-TV's restoration to cable systems across the country came at a high price. Its owner, like those of other networks, had to agree not to criticize Musharraf, the military, foreign policy or the judiciary, and to limit visual images of terrorist attacks in Pakistan.
Also, at least five public-affairs program hosts and news anchors remained blacklisted from the cable channel.
"Musharraf has some personal disliking for me," said Hamid Mir, a journalist whose public affairs program, "Capital Talk," was one of the most influential in the nation before Musharraf pulled the plug Nov. 3.
Shahid Masood, the once-popular host of an Urdu-language public affairs program, now is working at a Geo-TV bureau in Dubai. "They pressured management to fire me," he said in a telephone interview. "I'm on the top of the (black)list."
The disappearance of the blacklisted journalists and talk-show hosts from Geo-TV and other networks is no small affair in Pakistan, where the end of a state television monopoly in 2002 had led to an explosion of networks and the emergence of a galaxy of public affairs show hosts, newscasters and star interviewers.
"The TV anchors who do these talk shows are more popular than TV actors," said Mazhar Abbas, the head of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, a trade group.
It was Musharraf who'd initially opened up the airwaves.
"Pakistanis were tuning into Indian channels to find out information about Pakistan," said Adnan Rehmat, the head of Internews Pakistan, a watchdog group. So Musharraf allowed private networks to emerge alongside the dour state PTV to wean back viewers.
The nation's largest media group — the owner of the Urdu-language Jang newspaper and The News, published in English — created Geo-TV, the biggest of the new channels. It and other private channels sparked a sensation.
Musharraf first came into conflict with the new television networks last March, when he tried to sack former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. The showdown drew around-the-clock news coverage, much of it favorable to Chaudhry.
When Musharraf declared emergency rule in November, he took aim at the 60 or so new television channels.
Amid mounting financial pressure, Geo-TV's owner, Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, signed the "code of conduct" restricting coverage a few weeks ago. Yet the government kept his news channel and Geo Super sports channel off the air until Monday.
He's relocated to Dubai, taking his family with him.
"He was threatened. He was chased. A bullet was fired on the office of his personal assistant in Karachi, but (he) stood by his principles," Mir, one of Geo-TV's blacklisted anchors, wrote in an e-mail. "He's paid a very heavy price."
With elections looming Feb. 18, and Musharraf eager to convince the world that he isn't muzzling the media before the vote, he made the announcement while he was on an eight-day visit to Europe.
Masood, the banned program host, pondered how journalists allowed back on the air would wrestle with the new restrictions.
"How can you have a news channel if you cannot discuss foreign and defense policy?" Masood asked.
Added Mir, his banned colleague: "I don't think it's a clear victory."