Media and Elections in Pakistan

By

Owais Aslam Ali

Elections are widely seen as an important tool for bringing about peaceful changes in any society. In societies facing conflict they become even more crucial, as they can lead to the resolution or escalation of conflict.

The general election in Pakistan in February 2008 was a unique experience in the electoral history of the country. The polls were held in the midst of a conflict situation but, thanks to the close vigil of the media and civil society, they were held in a relatively peaceful, fair and free manner, reflecting the will of people. They also dealt a severe blow to the established practice of military leaders assuming political power, ushering in a new era of democracy.

Political and security environment

The political process in Pakistan has moved from one crisis to another since the creation of the nation in 1947. The first election on the basis of universal suffrage was held in 1970 and was considered transparent and impartial by most observers. However, the refusal of the then rulers to accept the results of the polls resulted in a bloody civil war that led to the division of the country and the creation of Bangladesh in December 1971.

From 1977 to 2002 Pakistan witnessed seven elections. However, most national and international observers had strong reservations about the neutrality and transparency of those elections.

The September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States of America and the resultant US military invasion of Afghanistan led to unprecedented social and political turmoil and upheaval in Pakistan, especially in the Pashto-speaking areas of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan, which border Afghanistan. The main beneficiary of the public anger against the US was the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of Islamist parties, which swept the 2002 general election in these two provinces.

After the 2002 polls the country saw a transition to a controlled form of democratic governance, with the real power remaining vested with Pervez Musharraf, the former general and chief of army staff who served as the country’s president from 1999 to 2008. Deprived of power, the elected government and parliament failed to deliver, thereby weakening the credibility of democratic forces. At the same time, the militant forces further consolidated their influence over Balochistan, the NWFP and the semi- autonomous regions of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). In addition, there was a dramatic increase in bomb blasts and suicide attacks all across Pakistan.

However, what ultimately galvanised Pakistan’s democratic forces into action was Musharraf ’s sacking of Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, Chief Justice of Pakistan, on 8 March 2009. That triggered a highly successful movement led by lawyers, which was wholeheartedly supported by various political forces, the media, as well as the common citizens of the country. The declaration of a state of emergency by the Musharraf government on 3 November 2007 did not curb the protests; in fact, it further angered the people and intensified their opposition to the regime.

Throughout the judicial crisis most sections of the Pakistani media steadfastly and courageously supported the pro-democracy movement. Challenging the Musharraf dictatorship, the media also gave extensive coverage to police action against lawyers. This historic struggle forced the then president to lift the state of emergency on 15 December 2007 and announce elections.

As electoral activities picked up momentum, leading opposition politicians living in exile, such as former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League, returned home.

This period also witnessed violence and terror. When Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan on 18 October 2007, a violent attack on her welcome procession in Karachi killed some 140 people, including a cameraman of the private news channel, ARY. Benazir Bhutto was later assassinated in a suicide attack in Rawalpindi on 27 December 2007, pushing Pakistan towards a period of insecurity and political uncertainty.

Alhough it was feared that the general elections would be postponed after Bhutto’s assassination, they were held in February 2008, after a delay of one month, thanks to pressure from political parties, civil society and the media.

The role of media in the 2008 elections

By the time the general election of 2008 was held, Pakistan already had a robust private media ready for unbiased coverage of polls.

The main problem faced by the media during the 2008 election was the charged and tense political atmosphere which meant that any error in election coverage could have proven costly. However, the media played a responsible role and no untoward incident was reported during the polls as a result of media coverage

The second problem was the negative attitude of both the ruling party and opposition parties, which were keen to manipulate election coverage in their favour, discouraging neutral and independent reporting. Complaints were received from some rural areas that some influential candidates tried to rig the polls and block media coverage of their activities through violence. In some instances such elements even beat up reporters.

The Musharraf regime tried its best to gag the free media, especially private TV channels, through the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), which was empowered to impose bans on TV channels and impound their transmission equipment on the basis of complaints. Transmissions of all local and foreign news TV channels were, in fact, restricted for a brief period and the import of dish antennas was banned for some time.

These curbs served to generate a new sense of unity among the independent media in Pakistan, compelling them to play a vanguard role in the movement for the restoration of democracy. However, the media paid a heavy price for this. Seven journalists were murdered and 13 others were injured in Pakistan during 2007.

Realizing that free and fair elections are essential for the consolidation of democracy and the prevention of conflict, and that proper coverage of elections by the media would help promote impartiality and fairness in the conduct of the polls, the media and civil society organisations in Pakistan had made preparations well in advance of the elections.

In 2006, a number of leading civil society organisations formed the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) to monitor elections in Pakistan. FAFEN deputed 19,000 observers to 12 per cent of the polling stations located in 256 constituencies across the country, and they presented reports based on their observation of the polls. The Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF), the country’s leading media development organisation, was among the founders of FAFEN. Later Intermedia, the local affiliate of Internews, was also admitted as a member.

To ensure effective media coverage, especially in conflict areas, it was necessary to train journalists for professional election reporting. Apart from furthering their awareness of democratic rights, including freedom of expression, and improving their understanding of election rules and guidelines, they required inputs on their right to work free of threats and on measures to enhance their safety while doing their duty. The PPF and Intermedia arranged a series of training workshops for reporters, photojournalists, cameramen and the desk staff of print and electronic media organisations in order to improve the capacity of media outlets to cover the election process.

Despite all the problems, the 2008 election remained generally peaceful and fair, thanks mainly to the close vigil kept by the media and civil society. The monitoring of the elections, conducted before, during and after the polls, helped ensure that Pakistan witnessed a reasonably free and fair election. This was confirmed by independent international observers. The Pakistani media played a key role in keeping citizens informed of the weaknesses in the electoral process which, in turn, resulted in pressure on those in authority to set right some of the more glaring irregularities.

Results of elections

The election results were somewhat surprising. For the first time in the history of Pakistan, the ruling party – in this case the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q) – conceded its defeat and accepted the election results. Facing a major defeat in Balochistan and the NWFP, the Islamist MMA also accepted the poll results.

Although no political party secured a decisive lead, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) emerged as the largest parliamentary party and formed a coalition government in the centre with the help of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the Awami National Party (ANP), the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) and other smaller political parties. Coalition governments were also formed in all four provinces. Later the PML-N decided to withdraw from the coalition due to differences with the PPP over the restoration of judges sacked by former president Musharraf.

The experience of the 2008 polls demonstrated that the prior preparation and efforts of civil society organisations, in collaboration with the media, which were initiated a year earlier in a bid to ensure fair and free polls in Pakistan, ultimately bore fruit and resulted in relatively peaceful and fair elections that were accepted by victors as well as losers.