Election corruption grave threat to Pakistan’s media

“Elections will not be fought, but will be bought,” is a saying being used by political tacticians in Pakistan. Hope for the legitimacy of the country’s first fair transfer of power between two civilian governments with the oversight of unbiased media is disappearing quickly. Billions of rupees are pouring into media outlets through secret sources, journalists and media watch organizations say. The cash is being paid out in several different ways. 

The plan is to use government money rather than intimidation to gain media support for the ruling Pakistan People’s Party-led coalition. Millions of dollars of government funds are allegedly being paid to high-profile journalists and media houses with the aim to influence mainstream media’s role in the upcoming voting, to be held February 2013 at the latest. The bribes are sometimes disguised as one-year salary advances or loans on highly advantageous terms, journalists and media watch organizations say. The cash handouts threaten to destroy the respect and credibility the media have been able to build over the years.

The problem is more than large amounts of money being used for political advertisements to influence voters. It involves the alleged use of secret payments to media houses and their personalities, and has even further ramifications. At the grassroots level–considering that many of the country’s 25,000 journalists living in impoverished rural regions often have to wait three or four months for their salary–large amounts of cash can go a long way. And the plan is almost sure to drive a rift between print and broadcast journalists and rural and urban reporters, while setting on-air personalities against each other. The victim will be the credibility of Pakistani journalism.

A petition before the Supreme Court by the prominent journalists Hamid Mir and Absar Alam is a step in the right direction. It seeks to probe the slush fund and learn who has already been paid. The pair want the court to oversee an accountability commission for the media–though many journalists think that is going too far in trying to clean up their industry. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists is considering joining the action before the Court.

So far, the government has not responded to the growing swirl of charges and legal actions.

True, in the current political climate, media organizations and their employees do not face the repression, bans, jail terms, and even floggings of the past. But the influx of large amounts of money could do more damage than any of those abuses. Chief Election Commissioner Fakhruddin Ebrahim, a retired Supreme Court Associate Justice, has apparently not been able to stop the use of such direct and indirect spending. Even though he is seen as a man of unblemished character–he once refused to take an oath of office under the military government of General Zia ul Haq–the fear is that Ebrahim, 84 and not in the best of health, is not up to the challenge of overseeing Pakistan’s first legitimate change of leadership by ballot, let alone reining in the massive corruption linked to it.

So far, a few news channels have resisted the huge amounts on offer, but with the election so many months away the question is how long they can hold out. A few people and news organizations may become wealthy, but their success will come at the cost of a free and credible media.