Pakistan imposes curbs on election coverage

By Khalid Qayum and James Rupert, Bloomberg

Pakistan's private broadcasters are barred from reporting independently on the country's parliamentary elections today after the government imposed curbs on coverage, amid rigging allegations by opposition parties.

``We are being told to report what the government wants us to report,'' Mazhar Abbas, the secretary of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, said in a phone interview. ``We have never ever experienced such harsh restrictions.''

Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, the government's regulator, yesterday prohibited television stations from reporting progressive results and interviewing candidates until the end of polling at 5 p.m. local time. Channels were also barred from live coverage of political parties, it said in a statement from Malik Mushtaq, chairman of the regulator.

The new rules come after the government ordered all Pakistani news channels off air when President Pervez Musharraf imposed emergency rule on Nov. 3 for six weeks. Today's election is the first nationwide vote since competing private channels were allowed to start broadcasting, ending the government's monopoly over broadcast news.

``It is controlled freedom of the press,'' said Abbas. While television channels violating the new rules risk going off air, some broadcasters will ignore the orders, he said.

Pakistan's main private television channels including AAJ, GEO and Aryone World are aired on cable TV or via satellite, limiting their viewership in a country of 160 million people. State-run Pakistan Television is the only terrestrial broadcaster in Pakistan.

The regulator's orders conform with Election Commission rules that campaigning ended at midnight on Feb. 16, Muhammad Saleem, a spokesman for the regulator, said in a phone interview.

Off Air

After emergency rule was imposed, the television channels were gradually allowed back on cable TV after they signed the government's code of conduct that barred them from criticizing the president, the army and the judiciary or face the risk of penalties and cancellation of their licenses.

Opposition parties have said that media curbs were part of the government's plan to rig the elections in favor of pro- Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-i-Azam party, a charge denied by Musharraf's office.

The Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres, or Reporters without borders, said state-run television's coverage of the election campaign was ``heavily biased'' in favor of pro- Musharraf parties.

``We urge international observers to include the television's lack of fairness in their conclusions of Pakistan's electoral process,'' it said in a Feb. 14 report.

The state-run TV in its four main political programs from Feb. 3 to Feb. 12 gave more than two-thirds of their time to news about Musharraf, the caretaker government, or the former ruling party Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-i-Azam, which is backed by president, the report said.

article originally published at http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601087&sid=adx7TArVY34Y&refer=home.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey