Election corruption grave threat to Pakistan's media

By Mazhar Abbas/CPJ Guest Blogger on August 8, 2012 3:18 PM ET

"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.


10th August 2012

Honorable Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry,
Chief Justice of Pakistan,
Supreme Court of Pakistan,
Constitutional Avenue, Islamabad.
Attn: Human Rights Cell
(Regarding obscene and other objectionable material carried in the media)
Sub Request for considering news items Cable operators Blackmail Media Houses into Blacking out SC proceedings in Obscenity Case
Honorable Chief Justice,

Transparency International Pakistan request the Honorable Chief Justice to take notice of the news items Cable Operators Blackmail Media Houses into blacking out SC proceedings in obscenity case, published in various news papers, after the Supreme Court hearing held on Monody 6 August 2012. ( Annex-A).

The serious details published in many newspapers are quoted below;

1. That an ‘Iftaar’ meeting of cable operators association held in Karachi on August 7,2012, it was decided to counter Supreme courts recent actions against obscenity and illegal Indian channels being showed on Cable networks around the country. A three-judge bench comprising Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, Justice Jawwad S. Khawaja and Justice Tariq Parvez had taken up a petition of former Jamaat-i-Islami Amir Qazi Hussain Ahmed and a letter by Justice (retd) Wajhiuddin Ahmed to the chief justice on which a notice had been issued to the Pemra chairman. After the meeting, Cable association members talked to Media owners who were also invited in this meeting, to completely Black out the verdict of supreme court which is expected to be against un-checked obscenity and banning of illegal channels.
2. That in a joint meeting of cable operators and TV channel-owners on Wednesday it was decided that the Supreme Court’s proceedings in a case against them with regards to obscenity, illegal Indian channels and a ban on senior journalist Ansar Abbasi from appearing in any program would be blacked out.
3. That Section 20c of the Pemra Ordinance and Code of Conduct for Media Broadcasters and Cable Operators which prohibits airing of obscene, pornographic or any programme injurious to public morality and against basic cultural norms and values.
4. That the court also objected to the airing of press conferences and talk shows against the judiciary and asked the Pemra’s acting chairman to submit a comprehensive report about such programmes by August 13.
5. That a plan was devised in today’s meeting by Cable network association to Black out the coverage of this case on the electronic media on August 13,2012 when one week deadline

expires, as a strategy no talk shows will be allowed, no news coverage will be given to this verdict and 14th August packages will be used as an excuse for missing out the major development expected in this case.
6. That this will be done in order to protect their vested and monitory interests that are asymmetrically weakening the moral and social coherence of society.
7. That it is imperative that honest media personnel, News Anchors, Columnists and Writers should stand against this conspiracy against Pakistan’s society that has already suffered and devastated due to immorality that is plagued by obscenity that has even forced west to take pre-emptive measures; though it is already too late for them to control the amount of immorality, molestation, rapes and other ills that result due to obscenity. We in Pakistan, have only started to bear the consequences on many fronts due to these vulgar productions in the name of entertainment.
8. That Besides, articles were also published in the print media about the airing of illegal Indian channels through cable network, obscene and vulgar dramas, immoral advertisements and entertainment segments during news bulletins on Pakistani channels and illegal CD channels by cable operators in connivance with Pemra.
This case is similar to the case in SHC in October 2011, in which the Sindh High Court (SHC) on Tuesday 18 October 2011 granted 10 days time as the last chance to Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) for filing comments on petition seeking ban on obscene material, websites on the internet. (Annex-B).
The Sindh High Court issued its verdict after hearing of a petition filled by Syed Iqbal Kazmi, who submitted that obscene material, websites were easily available on the internet, which are spoiling our youth and social norms.
Besides a long struggle was seen by a 15-year-old 9th grader, Ghazi Muhammad Abdullah, who had repeatedly written letters to the Chief Justice, Minister of IT and PTA to take notice of the adult websites, which were easily and freely accessible in Pakistan.

Abiding with the SHC Orders, by 11 February 2012, Pakistan Blocked 13,000 Porn (Adult) Websites by PTA ( Annex-C).

Transparency International Pakistan is striving for across the board application of Rule of Law, which is the only way to stop corruption, which has caused outspread of obscenity in electronic media.

With regards,

Syed Adil Gilani,

Encl: Copies of News report, Annex-A, Annex-B and Annex-C.

I agree that this trend will impact the upcoming elections. However, I don't see anything related to the age or health of the Chief Election Commissioner will have any effect on his ability to conduct free and fair elections, in my view, the only thing he has to be concerned about is selecting a team of fair officials to assist him. If he succeeds in identifying and employing a good team, nothing can then stop free and fair elections.

Further, people are (at least nowadays) very aware about who is who in the electronic media, so I don't think politically sponsored journalists can do anything but destroy their own credibility. We have already seen a trailer in the Riaz Thakedar's case.