By Asif Shahzad
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Prominent Pakistani political TV talk-show host Hamid Mir was suspended from his regular program on Monday, his media group Geo News network said, following comments he made last week against the powerful military for its role in media censorship.
A spokesman for Geo did not specify if Mir's absence was permanent, but his show was hosted by a stand-in anchor on Monday.
Mir, who survived an assassination attempt in 2014, is the latest target of an alleged military backed media crackdown that started in the run-up to 2018 election that brought Prime Minister Imran Khan to power.
Critics say the crackdown is part of a campaign to coerce Khan's opposition and silence critical voices in the media to prop him up as the military's protege. Both the military and Khan deny the accusation.
"Forcing a popular news talk show host like Hamid Mir off the air after voicing criticism of Pakistan's military, and support for a fellow journalist, only underscores the lack of true press freedom in Pakistan," said Steven Butler, CPJ's Asia program coordinator in a statement.
A Geo News TV spokesman told Reuters Mir wouldn't be hosting his show "for now" starting Monday. Several of the group's officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the channel was under intense pressure from the military to terminate Mir since his latest criticism.
The military didn't respond to Reuters' request for comment.
"I was banned twice in the past. Lost jobs twice. Survived assassination attempts but cannot stop raising voice for the rights given in the constitution," said Mir, who hosts one of the country's highest-rated political talk shows on Geo News, part of the country's largest media group. "Nothing new for me."
Over the weekend, Mir criticised the military during a protest rally that was held against last week's assault on a former TV news producer, Asad Ali Toor, who has been producing video blogs on his YouTube channel, often questioning the army's role in politics. Toor told police he was tortured by three gunmen who broke into his apartment, and that one of them introduced himself as an official from the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency.
The ISI "completely disassociated" itself from the incident, the information ministry has said.
Toor is the second dissident to be attacked in recent months after a former senior journalist Absar Alam survived a bullet wound by an unidentified gunman in the capital Islamabad, and yet another journalist, Matiullah Jan, was abducted by unknown gunmen in police uniforms last year.
Since the 2018 crackdown, around 3,000 media personnel have lost their jobs in Pakistan, say local journalists' unions. The country is ranked among the five deadliest places for journalists to work by Reporters Without Borders.
Mir was shot multiple times and was wounded critically in 2014.
"This time I'm ready for any consequences and ready to go at any extent because they are threatening my family," Mir said on Twitter.
(Reporting by Asif Shahzad in Islamabad and Gibran Peshimam in Karachi; Editing by Bernadette Baum)