How to Swing an Election, Pakistan Army Style
Pakistan's largest TV channel, Geo TV, has been in a long-running feud with the Pakistan army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in a way that should make Indian TV channels shrivel up in shame.
Geo put up a spirited fight – but just in time for the 2018 Pakistan general election, the most influential TV channel in Pakistan was neutered.
The election was the country's second-ever democratic transition of power, with all but the last being military coups or transitions from military to civilian governments. So just how democratic was this transition? How legitimate is Imran Khan's victory? How much help did he have from the Army, and what kind?
What Made the 2018 Election Different from 2013?
The Quint spoke to Pakistani journalist and anchor Amber Shamsi about the difference between this election and the last one, which resulted in Pakistan's first democratic handover of power. Were there not allegations of rigging the last time around too? What makes this election so alarming that international media has covered it the way it has?
There were two key differences – the allegations [last time] came after the election [...] and opposition parties were not united in their post-election strategy. [...] The environment leading up to the election – it was clear that PML(N) was not given, as it said, “a level playing field”.Amber Shamsi, Pakistani Journalist
Clearing the Way for Khan
In what was widely considered a 'judicial coup', on 13 April, just three months before the election, Pakistan's Supreme Court unanimously disqualified the then PM Nawaz Sharif from ever contesting elections again, declaring him to be "dishonest or not righteous".
The PML(N), Sharif’s party, countered, saying it is not for the court to decide if a politician is righteous, but for the Election Commission. Sharif was also sentenced to 10 years in prison – and his daughter Maryam, who was a political force, to five – in a disproportionate assets case that came to light after the Panama Papers leak. Commentators observed that in a country with endemic and widespread corruption, particularly at the upper echelons, a lifetime ban was more a targeted assassination of Sharif’s political career than crime-fighting.
Other PML(N) bigwigs were surgically removed from the running in a similar way.
Prominent PML(N) member Hanif Abbasi was sentenced to life in prison on 22 July by a Control of Narcotic Substances (CNS) Court for the misuse of the drug Ephedrine, reported Dawn. The court acquitted the other accused.
The conviction of Abbasi in the six-year case just four days before the general election meant that the PML(N) could not field another candidate in time. Importantly, Abbasi had requested the case to be decided earlier to avoid impacting the PML(N)'s ability to field a candidate, but the request was rejected, according to report in The News. Though the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) granted the N-60 seat a postponement in light of the fact that the PML(N) did not have a covering candidate, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) protested, saying the postponement only granted relief to Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) as PML(N) leaders were going to swing towards the PPP.
Another PML(N) member, Sheikh Waseem, was held in contempt of court for holding an ‘anti-judiciary rally’ and sentenced to one month in prison on 29 June according to a Geo TV report – conveniently missing the run-up to the 25 July polls. Yet another PML(N) leader, Daniyal Aziz, was convicted for contempt and disqualified from Parliament for five years on 28 June, taking him out of the running for the upcoming polls, said the same report. Aziz, according to Geo, had strongly defended Nawaz and his family's involvement in PanamaGate to the media when the scandal broke.
Toppling the Biggest Domino
In June 2014, Geo TV was fined Rs 10 million and had its licence suspended for 15 days by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) for reporting that the ISI was behind the shooting of one of its senior journalists, Hamid Mir, reported The Express Tribune. Mir's family too had blamed the spy agency for the shooting that left him injured and needing surgery. The complaint was filed with PEMRA by the defence ministry, which had in April first called for Geo to have its licence suspended.
Two months later when its licence was indeed suspended, Geo fought back – it counter-sued the army for $500 million in damages, alleging its claims of Geo being 'anti-State' amounted to defamation that put the lives of its employees in danger. Geo demanded a public apology from the ISI within 14 days. In a country where the Army and intelligence agency reign supreme, the move was unprecedented. There were consequences.
Cut to 2018 – Geo TV was unofficially forced off the air in Pakistan for its continued sympathetic coverage of the ruling PML(N) that sought to cut the Army down to size, and critical coverage of ISI darling, Imran Khan, The New York Times reported. While PEMRA denied it was behind the move, Geo's CEO, Mir Ibrahim Rehman, in an interview to NYT, said, "We are off the air in 80% of the country."
The unofficial blackout of Geo lasted days, after which the channel struck a bitter deal.
A Reuters report revealed the instructions given by Geo management to its employees after negotiations with the military to end its blackout. Geo would now have to refrain from “negative portrayals of the establishment” and any allegations that the Supreme Court might be interfering in politics. They could also carry no reports on Nawaz Sharif’s corruption trial “that helps build a narrative that he and his children are innocent”.
Next Up: Dawn
Dawn too faced the military's displeasure. On 17 May, Pakistan Today reported that the circulation of the Dawn newspaper – the country's oldest and widest-read English newspaper – had been disrupted in Balochistan following the printing of an interview with Nawaz Sharif in which he obliquely suggested that the Pakistan
Army/ISI was dragging its feet to shield the 2008 Mumbai attackers.
According to Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF), distribution was disrupted in most of Balochistan, in Sindh province, and in all military cantonments, like it was with Geo TV.
The objectionable part of Dawn’s interview was this:
The Press Council of Pakistan had even issued notice to Dawn over its publishing of the interview, saying it had violated the code of ethics by publishing material that could be harmful to Pakistan's sovereignty and integrity as an independent country, reported The Nation.
After the fate of Geo TV and Dawn, who dared to deviate from the army line, other publications too began to censor themselves for fear of consequences, according to what a senior journalist from a prominent Pakistani publication told Reuters.
Pakistani journalists began publicising this self-censorship, posting on Twitter about how their pieces and articles had been denied in unusual fashion.
Has there, in actual fact, been a marked difference in TV channels’ coverage too? Shamsi said that Geo, which had been known for its critical stance on Imran Khan and PTI, had now softened.
The last dominoes had fallen in time for the election.
Threat and Intimidation
But the systematic muzzling of critical press and heavy-handed use of the law was far from the only thing the parallel Pakistani establishment had up its sleeve. It also resorted to much more traditional methods.
Prominent journalist Taha Siddiqui, who was speaking to RFERL (Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty), said:
Another TV anchor, Raza Rumi, was shot at by unidentified gunmen, much like Geo’s Hamid Mir had been. Rumi’s driver was killed in the attack. RFERL quoted him as saying:
Going That Last Mile
A PML(N) senator claimed that for the first time, five parties apart from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Imran Khan's party) had brought allegations of irregularities and rigging at the polling booths before voting had finished.
While allegations of poll rigging are hardly unusual in South Asian elections, the Opposition parties this time are united in their allegations of impropriety. Social media was flooded with claims from ordinary Pakistanis and human rights activists, alleging that there were no female poll officers at the booths to discourage women from voting, that there were long delays to suppress the vote, and there were instances of polling officers themselves intimidating voters and not allowing voters to vote in sensitive areas like Balochistan.
So when Imran Khan takes oath as the democratically elected leader of Pakistan, it'll have been with the Pakistan Army's thumb heavy on the scales.