Lodhi’s predictions on television’s role in the elections are proving to be reasonably accurate. But while many expected private television to be an important forum for debate during the elections, few anticipated that the broadcasters would get sucked so deeply into the power politics, or that the elections would become a trial by fire for television news.
The election season began with a bang at the end of September. Opposition groups, including a vibrant civil-society movement led by the country’s lawyers, filed suit in the Supreme Court challenging Musharraf’s eligibility to seek reelection while still serving in the Army. The decision had the potential to redefine the civil-military power equation in the country, which has worked against the sustenance of democracy for decades. Once again, as they had earlier in the summer, the media’s (and by extension, much of the country’s) complete attention fell on the Supreme Court, where Musharraf’s—and some said the country’s—fate hung in the balance.
As television became saturated with discussion of the possible fallout of the court’s decision, PEMRA sprang into action on behalf of an agitated government. It issued a warning to all private TV networks that any sub judice matters related to the election were off-limits, to avoid what it termed “media trials.”
A few days after the warning from the regulators, activist lawyers and opposition party workers led a rally outside the Supreme Court. Under a hail of stones, Musharraf’s opponents demonstrated and scuffled with security forces on Constitution Avenue, obscured in a haze of tear gas. Dozens of TV reporters covered the rally, and when police began cutting camera wires, the journalists got swept up in the protest.
“Imagine if one of us shows up on air with a bruise tomorrow,” a TV anchor had asked me during that march in June. This time, the images left little to the imagination: police beating journalists with batons, well-known journalists with bleeding heads and broken bones being rushed off in ambulances. The provocation by police notwithstanding, the media had once again become part of a story they set out to cover.
It was another failure, but the story does not end there. Musharraf was reelected president in a controversial and largely boycotted legislative vote on October 6, after promising to relinquish his military position if he won. The more important general elections are in December and January, and will determine the makeup of parliament and the next prime minister. For the private broadcasters, it is a chance to shake off two distinct breakdowns in their mission—one in which they let the state bully them and another in which their hostility toward Musharraf got the better of them—and find that crucial balance between detached observer and force for social change.
“The Great Debate,” broadcast on GEO a few days before Musharraf was reelected, appeared to be a step in this direction. Because of the opposition boycott, there was only one candidate with a chance of winning, and it was essentially a debate between Musharraf’s supporters and his opponents. Tensions were running high in the studio. Hamid Mir co-hosted the first debate of its kind in Pakistan’s history, and millions watched as the panelists argued over issues ranging from the president’s personal character to the nature of economic growth in the country.
At one point, a government defense lawyer unleashed a rant against an opposition leader. A string of obscenities poured forth as the hosts lost control of the belligerent guests. The debate ended prematurely, before the audience got to ask questions.
GEO decided to air the show in its entirety, and Iftikhar Ahmad, Mir’s co-host, delivered an on-air commentary after the broadcast:
Ladies and gentlemen, I didn’t expect the debate to end like this. I thought the lessons of tolerance we give to others, we could practice ourselves. We had hoped that the Pakistani public could have learned that we all have the patience to learn each others’ points of view. Only then can we move forward as a nation .We hope that the role GEO is playing to move the country forward, to reform society, to create a tolerant, patient, and balanced society, a society that can understand each other and work together to solve their problems—I hope this role will continue.
Just like that, in the debate between Pervez Musharraf’s supporters and opponents, it was the broadcasters who scored an important victory. The politicians had embarrassed themselves, and the journalists managed to rise above it, to establish themselves as a fair voice of reason.