With just four days to go to the 18 February parliamentary elections, Reporters Without Borders confirms that the state television station PTV’s coverage continues to be heavily biased in favour of President Pervez Musharraf and his allies. The press freedom organisation has been monitoring the election campaign coverage of Pakistan’s only terrestrial TV broadcaster since 28 January.
From 3 to 12 February, 81 per cent of the political items (reports, interviews, analyses etc) on PTV’s four main news programmes were about the president, federal government or ruling party, the PML (Q). As regards political parties alone, PML (Q) got 24.3 per cent of air-time, while the opposition PML (N) got 6.7 per cent and the PPP, the other leading opposition party, got 10.1 per cent. During this 10-day period, the PML (Q) was mentioned for a total of 109 minutes and 38 seconds, while the entire opposition total was just 85 minute and few seconds.
"Despite the denials from the government and PTV in response to the first set of results we published, the trend has not changed significantly," Reporters Without Borders said. "Pakistan’s only national TV station has, it is true, talked a bit more about the PPP and other opposition parties, but this in no way means its coverage is fair."
The organisation added: "We urge international observers to include PTV’s lack of fairness in their conclusions on Pakistan’s electoral process."
The breakdown of air-time allocation in the monitored news programmes was 11.8 per cent for the president, 44.9 per cent for the federal and provincial governments, 24.3 per cent for the ruling PML (Q), 6.7 per cent for Nawaz Sharif’s PML (N), 10.1 per cent for the late Benazir Bhutto’s PPP, 0.1 per cent for the nationalist parties (such as the ANP) and 2 per cent for the MMA fundamentalist alliance. The APDM alliance, which is calling for an election boycott, got no air-time.
The coverage given to the ANP, a Pashtun party, was mainly due to a suicide bombing on one of its meetings on 10 February.
A significant improvement in the PPP’s share of air-time from 7 February onwards was due to the Chehlum ceremonies held 40 days after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. PTV’s reports included criticism of the current PPP leadership and comments by politician Mumtaz Bhutto, who was able to condemn the "politicisation of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination" for two minutes. The PPP got as much coverage as the PML (Q) from 7 to 9 February, but the difference resumed the next day, when the ruling party got 13 minutes 20 seconds and the PPP got 5 minutes 20 seconds.
It should be noted that the 81 per cent of air-time allocated to the president and his allies was a slight improvement on the first period monitored by Reporters Without Borders, when they were allocated 84.9 per cent.
Reporters Without Borders noted that PTV readily broadcasts criticism of the opposition by the regime’s supporters. But the criticism of Musharraf and his allies that is expressed at opposition meetings is rarely broadcast. On 10 February, for example, it broadcast comments by politician Chaudhry Perwaiz Elahi forecasting that Pakistan would break up if the PPP got to power.
The authorities have described the Reporters Without Borders monitoring as mendacious. They have claimed, for example, that the government has nothing to do with the president’s political camp. But all observers agree that most government ministers are, directly or indirectly, political allies of Musharraf or the PML (Q). The acting prime minister is a former senate president who was elected as a PML (Q) representative, while the ministers of information and inter-provincial coordination are leading PML (Q) members. A minister in the Balochistan provincial government is even a candidate, in violation of the electoral law.
In the programme "Khabar Nama" on 6 February, PTV described the first Reporters Without Borders release on its monitoring as false and fabricated. But it misrepresented the results. Reporters Without Borders never said that 85 per cent of the air-time had been allocated to the PML (Q). It said that it had been allocated to the PML (Q), the president and the government.
On 11 February, PTV launched a 55-minutes new programme called "Election hour" that provides a forum for "all the parties". Opposition parties’ leaders have already been invited, but it is doubtful that it will restore balance in the distribution of air-time before the elections.
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) recently issued rules to the privately-owned TV stations for their election-day coverage. No forecast or estimate of results is to be broadcast until the person in charge of the polling state has announced the official results.
Reporters Without Borders has monitored the state-owned TV broadcaster PTV’s coverage of the 18 February parliamentary election campaign since 28 January.