by Kiran Hassan, Associate Fellow

Nawaz Sharif, former President of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz party and former Prime Minister of Pakistan

Pakistan is holding its third consecutive election on 25th July 2018. Many observers looking at the relationship between elections and media allege that the military maintains considerable sway and uses its weight to ensure who comes into civilian power by using its vibrant private media. On a recent visit to London, Mr Imtiaz Alam (Secretary General of South Asian Free Media Association) shared a similar concern in an interview with me. According to Mr Alam, the military has been giving directives to key television anchors to denounce the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) Party, the most recent ruling political party, and favour the campaign of Imran Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI).

Being a Pakistani media observer who closely follows current media trends, I share some of these apprehensions regarding the military’s micro-management of the media during the current elections. While I agree that most power stakeholders, including the military, periodically hold the private media in check in Pakistan, I suggest that the notion that the military is directing the highly corporatized 2018 media election campaign is a miscalculation.

I do this for three reasons.

The first is based on my examination of the Pakistani media, which is providing almost equal coverage to all main political parties, rather than simply focusing on the military’s preferred contender. 24/7 News and evening political talk shows are covering all political narratives. Furthermore, media election campaigns usually tilt in favour of politicians who are media personalities; such is the case of the Pakistani media covering the 2018 elections. The current party leaders of the three leading political parties do not share the same media currency. For example, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s (of Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz) domestic popularity has been in sharp decline because of a corruption case followed by his forced resignation. Many analysts had predicted the death of PMLN in the 2018 elections because of Nawaz Sharif’s ousting by the accountability court after the Panama scandal.

Imran Khan, Chairman of Tehrek-e-Insaaf, Pakistan’s fastest-growing political party

Compare this to Imran Khan (Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf’s leader) who has been a media magnet throughout his cricketing, philanthropic and political career. Most television anchors would not favour coverage to a fading politician (Nawaz Sharif) or his ousted political party, because it will not get ratings; in contrast, giving blanket coverage to Imran Khan will pull audiences. Why, then, would the savvy Pakistani military manage the pre-election narratives favouring PTI over the declining PMLN? The answer is that they don’t need to. The Pakistani military saves exerting its pressure on the private media to national security issues; and the Pakistani military’s communication wing (ISPR) usually gives strict directives on stories regarding India, Kashmir, or militant terrorism, rather than promoting Imran Khan who has always enjoyed consistent media attention.

Mian Muhammad Shebhaz Sharif, current President of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz. He is the brother of Nawaz Sharif

The second reason why the military cannot steer the 2018 election media campaign is because the Pakistani private media has been heavily corporatized since 2002. Election time is money-making time for most private media houses. In the Journal of Democracy, Khan and Joseph (2008) pointed to the enormous sums of money pumped into televised campaigns before the 2008 elections. It was reported that 28 television channels ran elections advertisements costing up to an estimated $8.6 million during the campaign. Each of the leading party used paid ads. Only 13% of the party advertisements appeared on the state-run PTV; the remaining 87% went to private television channels. More money was spent during the 2013 televised election campaigns. According to a leading English language newspaper at the time, before the 2013 elections, medium-sized channels were charging $460-500 per minute for advertisements during the prime viewing time of 6pm to midnight, and $250-300 per minute earlier in the day. The same newspaper reported that the Pakistan advertiser society had told them that the top-rated channels charged $2,200 per minute for the 9.00-10.00pm slot. Apparently, up to $300,000 was being spent in a day by the main three parties on their television campaigns. He also added, “Whoever pays more, gets more.” All political parties in recent years have gathered unlimited funds for this purpose and spending will exceed the 2013 levels for the 2018 election campaigns. Every day political talk shows take prime time space on at least 10 television channels where the invited guests of the talk show host are representatives of three main political parties. This underlines that all parties are paying all channels for their coverage. In this transactional exchange between the media houses and electioneering political parties, the Pakistani military has very limited, if any, room to steer the election campaign even if it want to.

The final reason why the military cannot manipulate the media narrative into a singular direction in this election campaign is because of the increased usage of social media by all main political parties. Approximately 44 million Pakistanis, comprising roughly a quarter of the total population, use social media. Even though internet penetration in Pakistan is limited, social media is predominantly used by the Pakistani youth. 42.4 million out of the nearly 97 million registered voters are between the ages of 18 and 35, and these voters will determine the outcome of the Pakistani elections. As the same voters are the biggest users of social media, all political parties have been heavily investing into their social media presence. This is done by creating special media cells where top teams of communication specialists work on online party projection strategies. Many political leaders have Twitter accounts where they have personalised access to thousands of such voters. The two main political parties, PMLN and PTI, already enjoy a huge presence in social media. There have been many articles in which all political parties are accused of creating thousands of fake web accounts for the purpose of increased social media activity favouring their respective party. The meteoric rise in bots and trolls before the upcoming elections is another concern for human rights organisations and election observers. This also indicates that the social media space cannot be manoeuvred by one significant player – in this case, the Pakistani military.

Therefore, even though Dawn (one of Pakistan’s leading media groups) accuses the military of giving it a tough time over publishing a story favouring Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani military does not have the autonomy to dominate the media space to the extent which would enable it to deliver the ‘correct’ result in the 25th July poll. On the one hand, the daily pre-election media activity of televised political carnage comprising of political representatives, spin-doctors, political pundits, manipulative editors, corporate owners becomes difficult to manage. On the other, observing tweet wars, troll competitions and fake web accounts becomes impossible to manipulate and direct. Therefore, the argument of the Pakistani military steering the media election campaign towards a particular direction is simplistic analysis of what is, in fact, a more complex and sophisticated picture.