Reporters Without Borders has monitored the state-owned TV broadcaster PTV’s coverage of the parliamentary election campaign since 28 January and has found that, despite an effort to assign some space to all the main political parties, most of the air time has been given over to the parties that support President Pervez Musharraf, the federal government and the president himself.
The president and his allies were the subject of 84.9 per cent of the political items (reports, interviews, analyses and so on) in the four daily news programmes that were monitored from 28 January to 2 February. The press freedom organisation had already identified PTV’s lack of neutrality as one of the five major problems to be resolved before the elections, scheduled for 18 February.
"During his recent European visit, President Musharraf insisted that the elections would be free and fair, but the absence of fairness in the coverage provided by the only national terrestrial broadcast channel shows that this is not yet the case", Reporters Without Borders said. "The electoral commission and the federal government must quickly intervene so that the PTV grants the same air-time to the different political parties."
The organisation added: "Not content with controlling PTV’s editorial policies, the government has also imposed a draconian code of conduct on the privately-owned TV stations, which are broadcast by satellite and cable. On 2 February, the federal information ministry again threatened the privately-owned stations with reprisals if they did not respect the code."
Reporters Without Borders has been measuring the air-time accorded to the various political parties in the news programmes broadcast by PTV at 10 a.m., noon, 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. (the one with the most viewers). The political actors were put into eight categories: President Musharraf, the federal government and the provincial governments; the presidential party, PML (Q), and its allies, the MQM; the opposition PML (N); the opposition PPP; the nationalist parties, above all the ANP; the opposition alliance that favours a boycott, the APDM; and the MMA, a fundamentalist coalition.
A marked bias in favour of PML (Q)
During the six days of monitoring, the PML (Q) and its allies were given just over 46 minutes of air time while the two main opposition parties got a combined total of 40 minutes (28 minutes for Nawaz Sharif’s PML (N) and 12 minutes for the late Benazir Bhutto’s PPP). Their percentage shares show a clear bias: 17.4 per cent for the PML (Q), 10.5 per cent for the PML (N) and 4.6 per cent for the PPP.
The bias was even more marked on some days. On 28 January, for example, PTV accorded a total of 8 minutes and 10 seconds in the four news bulletins to the pro-Musharraf parties while the PML (N) got just 3 minutes and 11 seconds and the People’s Party of Pakistan got 3 minutes and 20 seconds. The federal government and the president received a total of 31 minutes of air time the same day.
The pro-autonomy parties and the MMA fundamentalist coalition were almost completely ignored in PTV’s news bulletins. The MMA was given only 30 seconds from 28 January to 2 February, while the pro-autonomy parties of Balochistan and the Pashtun regions got no mention at all.
In addition to the air-time bias, Reporters Without Borders also noted that the journalists’ comments that accompanied the reports about the PML (Q) were always positive. Its rallies, for example were always referred to as "popular" or "mass" meetings, while the tone used for the reports on the opposition was more neutral.
The monitoring also revealed that PTV broadcast very frequent PML (Q) spots that went into its political programme in detail. The opposition parties have not bought or otherwise obtained this kind of publicity.
When questioned by Reporters Without Borders about the bias, a member of the PTV staff said: "We cover the political parties when they have activities and the PML (Q) organises more events than the others. We have a programme on the elections in the afternoon in which everyone has a chance to speak. Then, in the news programmes, we concentrate on the leading politicians." Speaking on condition of anonymity, another member of the PTV staff said the station had not been instructed to cover all the candidates with complete fairness.
The electoral commission has not laid down precise rules about the allocation of air-time during the campaign but PTV was encouraged to promote pluralism. However, our measurements show that the station does not even respect the commonly accepted rule during election campaigns that air-time should be fairly allocated between the government, the parliamentary majority and the opposition.
Nearly 85 per cent for Musharraf and his allies
Musharraf, the federal government and the provincial authorities were allocated 67.5 per cent (more than two thirds) of air-time from 28 January to 2 February. Including the PML (Q), the presidential camp was assigned 84.9 per cent of the political reports. On 2 February, more than 35 minutes were given over to the president, the government and the pro-government parties, while the opposition parties got a little less than two minutes.
The president has been getting a great deal of coverage from PTV. On 1 February, he got 4 minutes and 30 seconds of air-time while the PPP got 25 seconds and the PML (N) got just under 3 minutes.
Nonetheless, the code of conduct set by the electoral commission for the broadcast media in November says "election coverage on the television stations must be fair, impartial and balanced." The commission gave the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority the job of monitoring respect for these rules.
The international standards are similar. In its guide for election observers, the European Union says the state and public media "must accord access to government and opposition parties". It also says: "The very principles of democratic governance require that the electorate be able to make an informed choice (...) While the public must be able to benefit from coverage of public affairs, events linked to the campaign must not be confused with government news."