DW’s Shamil Shams, who was in Pakistan to cover the July 25 general election, explains why reporting freely and independently from the South Asian country was not an easy task despite no direct threat from authorities.
Let’s be clear that there were no direct threats, or warnings, to foreign journalists on what not to report during last month’s general elections, either from Pakistan’s caretaker government or the country’s powerful military and its ubiquitous security agencies. But there was an indescribable feeling that journalists must be careful in what they report about the polls.
The informal discussions with security analysts, who mostly toe the military’s line, and sources close to Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI, Movement for Justice) party, almost always conveyed the message that Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was jailed for ten years on corruption charges, is a problem for Pakistan, and that the military only wants to clear the mess created by Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N)-ruled former government.
There were some explicit complaints too. I was told that foreign media only presents a mono-dimensional picture of Pakistan, where the military is maligned and “corrupt politicians” praised. “We are here to put across the military’s point of view also,” I told a retired military officer, who is now a defense analyst. “But please keep in mind that our reference point is democratic supremacy,” I added.
“Democracy” is not a popular word in Pakistan. The common people I met with in the cities of Lahore and Islamabad during the July 25 election coverage associate parliamentary democracy with three decades of incompetence, bad governance, unemployment, inflation, corruption and nepotism. To many, Sharif’s PML-N and Former PM Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which is now headed by her son Bilawal, are responsible for Pakistan’s “misfortune” at the governance level. An increasing number of working class Pakistanis are looking to Islamist parties for relief.
The educated urban middle-class also blames the PML-N and the PPP for the country’s ailing economy, a lack of security, and Pakistan’s “negative image” abroad. For these people, Khan, who is on course to become next prime minister after securing most seats in the next parliament, is an “outsider,” who can put things in order. And the military is still a “holy cow” that not many — barring some civil society activists and intellectuals — dare to criticize.
Sharif’s “defiance” to the military generals, that they should perform their constitutional role and do not get involved in politics, was a core issue not only for DW but also for other international media organizations. The other major topic was the pre-poll crackdown on media and rights activists that supported Sharif’s narrative, or were at least sympathetic to it. IA Rahman, one of Pakistan’s most respected human rights campaigners, told DW that the fairness of an election can’t be judged by voting but by the run up to the election. In his opinion, Sharif’s party was not given a level-playing field by the military establishment, which obviously affected the PML-N’s performance in the election. The European Union’s election observers also noted the same in their preliminary findings a day after the polls.
Although the military’s deployment on polling stations was massive, and local and foreign media didn’t get any proper access to the voting centers, the establishment, through its propaganda machinery, made sure that people only focused on voting mechanisms. We were told repeatedly that the polling went smooth, that Khan’s party won the election fair and square.
Now as journalists, we are not supposed to take sides. The voting was largely fair, but it would be a big mistake to take it on its face value. It was a “controlled election.” From who can contest the election to last-minute PML-N disqualifications to “discarded votes” on the polling day, the 2018 election was arguably the best “managed” election in Pakistan’s history.
We, as journalists working for international media, could only point to it in our reports; it would be violating journalistic rules had we said that the 2018 election was “rigged.” So we hoped that if we presented all facts clearly, our readers could see the “big picture.”
Military’s point of view
There is no escape for journalists from the invisible shadows of the military, as my former media colleagues and journalist friends told me time and again during my brief stay in the country.
We tried to reach out to the military to get their point of view, but to no avail. Only the military’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) department talks to media on such issues. The ISPR higher-ups are not easily accessible although DW tried to contact them. We still hope that they would like to share their views with our audience.
But by talking to retired military generals, who have found a new and lucrative profession as “security/defense analysts,” one can get an idea about the military’s thinking. And the military’s mindset is very clear on certain issues. Firstly, Pakistan is facing a number of security challenges and it cannot afford “corrupt politicians” demonizing the army, which is the only institution that can tackle these issues. Secondly, the country needs stability — both political and economic — and the military wants to safeguard these interests.
Good luck, democracy!
Khan’s aides and supporters share this view, as they conveyed to me during interviews. They also complain that Western media have a grudge against their leader.
“Western media do not like Imran Khan, but we don’t care about them. Our leader will make Pakistan great again,” they say.
I told them that I wish PM-elect Khan best of luck and hope that under his leadership the country progresses by leaps and bounds.
“But if he ever fell out with the military, independent media — both local and foreign — will continue to be the strongest voice in his favor and also in favor of democracy and constitutional supremacy in Pakistan,” I said.