IT happened around 11 p.m., in the studios of the state-controlled Pakistan Television (PTV) on October 9. The country was all set for one of the `most regulated' general elections in its history, and an animated debate was on, based on live calls from viewers, on what lay ahead for it. As the anchor signalled to an enthusiastic viewer to give his opinion came the audacious statement. "What can be expected as long as a shameless General is at the helm of affairs...'' Shell-shocked, the anchor quickly switched off the microphone and launched into a discussion, along with two other guests in the studio, on the minimum etiquette expected from callers.
A sign of the perils of the `glasnost' and `perestroika' initiated by Gen. Musharraf, at least on the media front? Or was it a mere case of a viewer venting his ire about the political vacuum created by the military regime through its innumerable campaign-related curbs on political leaders?
Undoubtedly Election 2002 in Pakistan went down as the dullest in its history as far as the street was concerned. For television screens, however, it was the loudest and most innovative.
Scenes that were missing from the streets were recreated with a vengeance in the television studios; there was venom in the outpourings of political leaders and common persons on the `idiot box'. Six channels beamed the election hungama non-stop. Of these, four were launched just weeks before the polls.
Musharraf will certainly be remembered for allowing a greater degree of freedom to the media in the country, though there are no takers for his assertion that he heralded an era of `sustainable democracy'. It must be said to Musharraf's credit that he has been tolerant to scathing attacks from the media in the past three years of his rule. And as for freeing the electronic media from the clutches of the establishment, full marks to him.
General Election 2002 would undoubtedly go down as the first `live' election in the three-decade-old electoral history of the country. The first general election in Pakistan was held in December 1970; ironically, it only evokes bitter memories of a power struggle it triggered between East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and West Pakistan.
Television, which was synonymous with PTV, suddenly came alive in the days preceding the poll. The six new private channels gave round-the-clock coverage, advertisement capsules of various parties, candidate profiles, question and answer sessions, discussions and even spoofs on leaders in a country where cable television was considered anti-religious (in some parts) until a few months earlier.
Some of the spoofs on leading politicians bordered on blasphemy. Geo, a news channel launched by the largest media group in the country, Jang, ran a political satire series under the title `Hum Sab Umeed Se Hain' (We are all expecting). It featured caricatures of Gen. Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and Qazi Hussain Ahmed, chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami.
The channel was ruthless in its spoofs on politicians while being a bit careful on the General. The interview with the caricature of Benazir Bhutto begins with the standard question on her assessment of the general election. Her reply is: "Jo election general karvai voh kya election he'' (How could an election held by a General qualify to be called a general election)? Her reply to the query why her husband is in jail was scathing: "Pakde jaane se'' (Because he was caught).
Geo had a live phone-in programme with viewers on the spoofs it carried. The dominant complaint from viewers was that the channel targeted politicians and left out the Generals who they said were equally responsible for the state of affairs in the country. Geo redeemed itself by doing a Musharraf spoof, but the overall balance was sharply tilted against the politicians.
The focus of the discussions in all the channels and the commentaries in the print media was `pre-poll rigging'. Every time there is an election in the country, there are the `king's parties' and the others. But this time, uniquely, the two exiled arch rivals, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, joined hands against the ruling establishment to accuse it of `pre-poll rigging'.
The state-run news agency, the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP), ran a cheeky feature on how the `die-hard rivals' are busy singing duets on `pre-poll rigging' and the `machinations of the military establishment'. As if to warn the hordes of foreign and desi journalists against being misled by the charges of rigging, the Press Information Department under the Information Ministry brought out a handbook cataloguing the record of past elections and rigging charges against the two former Prime Ministers.
It covers all the four general elections held since 1988. The 56-page document contains photocopies of paper cuttings about what Benazir Bhutto said against Sharif and vice versa. While the 1988 and 1993 elections were won by Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, the 1990 and 1997 elections went in favour of Sharif's party, Pakistan Muslim League. The implied message in the document is that losers cry the loudest.
The slogans of parties, as advertised in the print media, varied from revolutionary to down-to-earth.
Would the media boom last and if yes, with the same degree of operational freedom? It is difficult to say at this juncture. With a struggling economy and a prickly establishment, the media are not likely to have a smooth ride.