Pakistan's Hushed Media on the eve of Elections

Pakistan's hushed media is criticized
Groups say the code stifles chance for a fair election
By LAURA KING, Dec. 24, 2007, Los Angeles Times

KARACHI, PAKISTAN — It's the height of election season, and Pakistani television audiences might expect the airwaves to be crackling with live campaign coverage, argumentative talk shows and sharp-tongued political commentary.

Instead, two weeks before the country's most hotly contested parliamentary vote in years, broadcast outlets continue to operate under a stringent code of conduct imposed by President Pervez Musharraf during a six-week period of de facto martial law, which ended earlier this month.

Political activists, human rights organizations and media groups believe the restrictions, which are to remain in place indefinitely, seriously diminish prospects for a free and fair election.

"Being on the air is not the same as being free," said Ali Dayan Hasan, a Pakistan-based representative of the New York-based group Human Rights Watch. "The coverage is quite circumscribed, quite sanitized and not at all conducive to helping people make informed decisions about their political future."

At the outset of emergency rule, one of Musharraf's first actions was to jam the signals of dozens of independent TV and radio channels. Most have been allowed to resume broadcasting, but the most widely watched Urdu-language news channel, Geo, remains banned. In impoverished rural Pakistan in particular, Urdu news programs are powerful in shaping opinion.

In order to get back on the air, the broadcast outlets had to agree to refrain from live coverage, including that of candidates' speeches at political rallies. Popular politics-themed talk shows were dropped from the programming lineup. Defaming Musharraf or the army is now punishable by fines or jail time.

After a flowering of media freedoms in the past five years, the current crackdown is difficult for many to swallow.

"Imagine an election without free media," said Talat Hussain, a longtime journalist whose daily current-affairs talk show on the Aaj television channel was canceled under government pressure. "For us, it's not so much a professional setback as sheer embarrassment that such a thing is happening in our country."

Guest commentators who appear regularly on talk shows say they are being warned that certain topics remain off limits, including the state of emergency, during which Musharraf suspended the constitution, jailed thousands of opponents and fired dozens of senior judges.

"When I arrived for a taping, I was instructed not to mention or refer in any way to President Musharraf," said Tauseef Ahmed Khan, an analyst and columnist who teaches mass communications at Urdu University in Karachi. "That makes it very hard to talk about what is happening."

The enforcement of the code of conduct is inconsistent, media observers say. The restrictions have fallen most heavily on Urdu-language stations, the main source of news and information in a country where nearly half the population is illiterate.

"On TV, you see coverage of candidates out campaigning, but it's made to appear that the government-backed ones are equal in popularity to the opposition ones," said Waris Raza of the Urdu-language channel ARY.

He said reporters and producers routinely receive threatening telephone calls from bureaucrats or army representatives when the news coverage is perceived to have crossed a line.

"And the call comes on a number whose display is blocked, so you don't know for certain who you are talking to, or to whom you can appeal," Raza said.

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