October issue 2002
Lights, Camera, Elections
For the first time in the nation’s 55-year history, the Pakistani public was exposed to a host of controversial political broadcasts through a veritable media blitz, combining news, views and hard-hitting interviews on both state run and independent TV channels.
So just how well has Pakistani television lived up to the ideal of empowering its viewers with their right to know? How faithfully have the independent networks interpreted the vital public issues of the day, in comparison to that of the state owned channels? And how well have the networks served the viewing public with their coverage of the Pakistani President and the current political status quo? Has the current spate of political news and entertainment affected public sentiment in Pakistan in any conclusive way by influencing and shaping the electorate?
Federal Information Minister Nisar Memon assured all political parties of equal coverage in the state owned media to project their manifestos and party programmes. “As the Election Commission (EC) is allowing political parties to project their programmes, we will invite them to television soon,” he said. “We are all media people and our mission should be to protect and project Pakistan through information management,” he added, emphasising the responsibility of the electronic media to provide an unbiased representation of the facts.
The 13 point EC code of conduct for the electronic media set down strict conditions for equal opportunity electioneering to all political parties in the state controlled media, Pakistan Television and Radio Pakistan. In addition to being objective and fair in their coverage, the state media has been exhorted to provide equivalent coverage to all political parties — no mean feat, considering there are approximately 80 political parties contesting the elections.
PTV’s election coverage included live discussions, with harsh comments against the military government broadcast unedited. However, the regime’s claim of being an impartial referee, was damaged when the EC took suo moto action on September 26 against PTV, serving notices to PTV’s managing editor and news editor to explain their position by September 29 on charges of broadcasting negative coverage to opposition political parties. The first media monitoring report of Election 2002, by the Liberal Forum Pakistan, focusing on Khabarnama on PTV, News at Ten on PTV World, and the current affairs programme, Newsnight, stated that two political parties, the PPPP and the MMA, received negative coverage on PTV. During the first half of its monitoring time frame, the report cited exact statistics of the state’s attempt to doctor the electorate, with two minutes of negative coverage to Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari, a four minute and 51 second tirade against the “corrupt rulers of the past” and a one minute and 20 second reportage against the inconveniences caused by the planned train march of the MMA. The report also stated that in another episode of Newsnight , an impression was created that the restoration of democracy in Pakistan was not an issue with the US. More negative reportage came Benazir’s way on PTV World with two special reports, covering approximately four minutes, discussing her disqualification from the polls. The PPPP and PML(N) were also covered for two minutes and 43 seconds for their emerging political friendship. The second monitoring report (September 10-23) cited PPPP as being singled out for maximum negative coverage, whereas PML(Q) topped the favourable reporting list, with a grand total of 15 minutes of air time — a much higher percentage than the five minutes and 53-second coverage awarded to the PPPP. The report further added that the PML(Q), whose election meetings were attended by Punjab governor, Khalid Maqbool, got more coverage than that of PPPP and PML(N) put together. Interesting however, was the fact that although the first report pointed out the negative coverage afforded to the MMA, the second pointed out that the party was awarded the second highest time slot after the PML(Q).
Although there is no yardstick of how much coverage is appropriate for a single party, it was noted that independent networks abroad usually worked on the basis of providing more air time to candidates who had held posts in previous parliaments. The number of candidates fielded by a particlular party could also serve as a benchmark for the length of alloted air time. Going by this, the report pointed out that the PPPP, which has fielded the highest number of candidates — 230 for 270 general seats of the National Assembly — should have received first priority as opposed to the PML(Q), which has fielded 193 candidates.
Interestingly however, private channels are not bound by the EC code of conduct, stipulating equal air time to all political parties. However, in keeping with the fact that the state awards licenses to independent networks, the autonomous Pakistani cable channels have judicially followed the EC recipe, proving quite unbiased in their media coverage. Attention has focused this time around, not so much on the actual personalities or the electioneering process itself, but on the issues that parties and leaders are representing. Given the dismal lack of concrete plans on the economic, social or political front, the focus has remained strictly on the problems Pakistan still faces 55 years after Partition. Rampant unemployment, rising inflation and the lowest literacy rate in the region, along with a host of other dismal social indicators, were the issues in the spotlight on a series of hard-hitting interviews that had various politicians squirming in the hot-seat.
Both PTV and PTV World, in addition to covering election news on its Khabarnama and News at Ten slots, introduced a daily Election Hour and Newsnight specials focusing on the electoral process. Keeping in tune with its image of a people’s channel, Indus News filmed Indus Election Train specials with Mujahid Barelvi chugging to the masses in different cities, in an attempt to provide honest and uncensored coverage of mass sentiment across the political spectrum. Election Review and Election Periscope, also hosted by Mujahid provided an opportunity for a one-to-one with prominent politicians on the election trail and an analysis of the performance of past governments by political analysts. Alongside chats with the common man, Barelvi also interviwed leaders such as Akram Zaki and Sardar Zulfiqar Khosa from the PML(N) in Lahore, Ghafoor Ahmed from the JI, Deputy Convenor MQM, Dr Farooq Sattar, Amin Khattak of the National Awami Party and Aftab Sherpao of the PPP(S) to name a few. In addition, regular slots of Controversy, Pulse, and Do Toak on Indus Vision featured lively debates on feudalism and poverty, featuring a host of prominent personalities and print journalists. Slotting in at number one in viewer popularity was ARY Digital with its frank reports bolstered by former interviews with controversial politicians that people love to hate like Altaf Hussian, Imran Khan and Benazir Bhutto.
Competition aside, what each channel had in common were more than a few hysterically funny moments during interviews with electoral contestants. And at the end of the day that was what the election reports were really supposed to be all about — good entertainment. The finest moment came perhaps during an interview of contestants for the NA-122 seat, conducted by ARY’s PJ Mir. Resplendent in golden glory sat Mian Asad Ataullah, along with his mirror image brother Mian Raza Ataullah. Both brothers sported huge six-inch gold watches while Asad was also adorned with a gold and diamond bracelet and medallion. Asked about his policy on education, the candidate asked his audience to take off their rose-tinted glasses and face reality. “There is no possibility of a good educational system in Pakistan anytime soon,” he stated. “It is therefore my intention to educate my people in schools and universities abroad by making scholarships possible to all.” The hapless PJ could only nod in consternation. Matters took a turn for the truly hysterical when Asad Attaullah was asked to name the constituency he was contesting from and his main opponent. “My main opponent in the battle for NA-121 is Sardar Ayaz Sadiq from PML-N,” replied Asad. PJ proceeded to telephone Ayaz on his mobile to get his opinion on the matter. The show went from the ridiculous to the absolutely absurd when Ayaz Sadiq, in the midst of an election rally himself, replied, “Tell Mr. Ataullah that he is contesting from NA-122 and not NA-121.” Unable to salvage the moment, Ataullah was left with egg on his face.
Even PTV, in its long overdue attempts to revamp itself along the lines of the independent cable channels, unwittingly played host to some funny moments. Take for example a programme on it’s Election Hour aired between 12 and one o clock every night. Hosted by the charismatic Talat Hussain, Quatrina Hussain and a representative from the Sindhi press, Election Hour gave party leaders a chance to convince voter blocks of their worth, by announcing their manifesto and future ambitions. Guests included an array of prominant politicans such as Tahir ul Qadri, President of Pakistani Awami Tehrik, and Aftab Ahmed Sheikh, deputy convenor MQM to name a few. Brief interviews provided guests with ample opportunities to play spin-doctors by taking advantage of the panel’s unaggressive caution. Few people know that Qadri, for example, has been a driving force in social improvement, opening up several technical education centres and universities the world over. Election Hour provided him with a great slot for addressing popular concerns, with Tahir pledging to house the future PM and President in flats. However, not all candidates proved as impressive. Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, head of the National Alliance risked sounding rather imperialistic when Quatrina asked about his stance on the empowerment of women in a feudalistic society. Mr Jatoi stated his empathy with the victims of Meerwala and Mianwali, but flatly denied any linkage of the subjucation of women with feudalism. The image of a cruel feudal landlord isolating and treating his tenants as mere serfs was a thing of the past he said. The 1970 elections tried to do away with the landowning class, and now there were hardly any feudal landlords. According to Jatoi, the ones that remained are there by popular demand. “Do you know what a wadera is?” he asked a bemused Talat. “A wadera is a respected elder of the community who is empowered by the people to handle their affairs. It’s a position of power based on the trust of the community and only respected elders can claim this title.” Talat immediately interrupted to ask, “Surely, it’s a position of power based on the might of landholding which is detrimental to progress?” An annoyed Jatoi however, flatly waved off this assertion as “bad press based on uninformed perceptions,” using in his defence the large landholdings in the EU and America, statistics of which he quoted from an article he had carefully preserved from the Reader’s Digest!
The lack of any concrete issues in this year’s elections, or of any concrete plan of action for the future prosperity of the nation, seemed even more clearly visible on television. What came across loud and clear, however, was the complete and utter disillusionment of the masses with democracy. President Musharraf could not have asked for better publicity had it been scheduled and scripted by his loyalists themselves.
The majority of the people on the streets when asked their opinion on the elections, by Mujahid Barelvi, expressed apathy and disinterest. “We used to vote in the past, but now we are left with no expectations nor any illusions, as no past promises have been fulfilled,” were commonly expressed sentiments. Even the anti-Musharraf camp seemed dismissive of the workings of Pakistani democracy, stating that even though October 10 would be a day of selections, not elections, what did it really matter anyway? Interestingly, party candidates interviewed by Barelvi seemed quite divorced from the concerns of their people, reiterating the same old tired themes of the sacrifices made by their party leaders for the country.
BBC’s coverage of election issues covered in Question Time Pakistan, reflected the same sentiments, while exposing glaring contradictions in the stances of certain political leaders. An otherwise dull episode featuring the Minister of Communication, Ejaz Shafi (PML-N) and Nasreen Jalil saw the latter project a rather quixotic argument. Asked about her opinion of the forthcoming elections in Kashmir, Ms. Jalil replied that she supported them, defending her stance by the contention that any step towards democracy should be supported. When the vivacious host Mahreen Khan interrupted to say that Pakistan’s stance had always been that the elections were a carefully disguised attempt to subvert the democratic process, Ms. Jalil was somewhat flustered and unable to express what she meant. However, when asked her opinion on the upcoming Pakistani elections, she flatly condemned it as a rigged exercise, stating that she felt as if she were in exile in her own country.
QTP, in addition to PTV over the past month, has also served as a pliable medium for President Musharraf’s quest to appear as a man of the people. In a national television address on July 12, Musharraf defended his constitutional amendments by attacking the record of previous governments. “There has never been true democracy in Pakistan,” he stated. Picking up on this thread, his interview with the QTP audience on September 6 served to reveal contradictions in his argument. While calling himself “a democrat all the way,” he was forced to admit that he “didn’t want to be left to the mercy of political maneuverings.” The General also used the show to ask the audience to vote for the right man.
Going by the coverage on TV, it seems that even those opposed to Musharraf’s logic, are quite in tune with his continued criticism of the regimes of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. This was most evident in the episode feauturing Nisar Memon, Makhdoom Amin Fahim and Tahir ul Qadri. While the latter two participants decried the government’s attempt to restrict coverage of their campaigns, an audience member retaliated to state, “It’s ludicrous to think that the curtailing of five minutes or so of coverage will affect voter perceptions. The nation should be credited with more intelligence than that. Besides we live in this country and have seen what havoc the governments of PPP and PML(N) have caused. I for one, would not like to see convicted politicians being provided with even more time to blow hot air and propogate useless rhetoric.”