Pakistan will elect a new parliament on Feb. 18. The media, especially the private TV channels, are playing a particularly important role in the election campaign as the importance of public rallies withers amid fears of terrorist attacks.
President Pervez Musharraf talks to the nation
In one television studio in Karachi, the final edit is being given to a programme, which will be broadcast on Sunday. One woman explains to the audience: “Good Taliban or bad Taliban is not the criterion.
“The criterion is: who is a combatant and who is not? If somebody is not a combatant but they have certain beliefs, I might dislike them, I might find them repulsive, but I can’t go and kill them!” Whereupon the host replies: “Well, I want to move on to the judges and appeal to them.”
Azhar Abbas is the head of news at Dawn TV -- he’s giving the finishing touches to the last round of the popular reality show “Enter the Prime Minister”. On Sunday, one day before the “real” elections, the TV channel will present its winner. Thousands of candidates applied, 16 were invited to talk on air about topics such as the right strategy to use in the fight against the Taliban.
“The main purpose of ‘Enter the Prime Minister’,” explained Abbas, “was to create a more educated debate, a debate that normally in elections people are not engaged in. There are accusations and counter-accusations, but they don’t discuss the real issues that Pakistan is facing.”
First English-language audience
Dawn TV is Pakistan’s first English-language channel in Pakistan and has only been on air for a few months. In recent years, President Musharraf has enabled an unprecedented boom of private channels which have broken dozens of social and political taboos.
But last year, some became too critical about Musharraf’s sacking of the chief justice -- he put on the emergency brakes and decided as part of the state of emergency rules to take some of the more critical channels off air.
Emergency rule has since been lifted but journalists still feel they’re being kept on a leash by the government. Masoom Rizvi from Aaj TV’s news desk explained: “There are a huge amount of restrictions. We keep getting various ‘pieces of advice’, which we’re supposed to stick to.”
A few days ago, Aaj TV was shut down briefly after a political commentator who had been declared an “undesirable” turned up as a guest on a talk show.
“If there are fewer restrictions, we say its “free media” in Pakistan but if there are more restrictions, we end up with media, which can’t work at all. The democratic governments have never treated the media well either,” explained Rizvi.
So most Pakistani journalists are sceptical that anything will change after the elections. But some journalists are also critical about their own profession. Some say the media became too partisan against Musharraf and his regime.
Osama Bin Javaid, an editor at Dawn TV, criticises the lack of professional standards: “A lot of curbs on the media in Pakistan were on channels and on reporters and anchors, who were visibly taking sides and giving analyses which were not necessarily true. A lot of them were hypothetical.”
Suspense is high
Bin Javaid’s head of news, Azhar Abbas, is concentrating on the final cut of “Enter the Prime Minister”.
He thinks the media should probe politicians more: “None of the major political parties has taken a clear-cut stand on suicide bombings, which is a real issue that Pakistan faces. The religious parties have not said clearly that they condemn them.”
The reality show’s best candidate for the job of prime minister won’t be revealed until Sunday -- a panel of experts will decide and not the audience. On Monday evening the first results of the “real” elections will start coming out.