ECP failure : media, advertising and elections | The News

May 2013

As we approach the finishing line on 11th May in a fog of bombings, killings, advertising blitzes, media clamour and derogatory invective by leaders, it seems that the Election Commission of Pakistan has squandered an opportunity to effectively monitor and regulate the use of advertising and media in Elections 2013. Instances of negative advertising and defamatory extremism by leaders being freely carried by media in recent days only underline this omission by ECP.

An unprecedented opportunity became available to ECP by the first part of the Report of the Media Commission appointed by the Supreme Court on 15th January, 2013. The two-Member Bench of the Court comprises: Mr. Justice Jawaad S. Khawaja and Mr. Justice Arif Hussain Khilji. The Commission comprises Justice (R) Nasir Aslam Zahid as Chairman and this writer as Member. With the approval of the Court, the Commission invited former Federal Secretary, Mr. Salim Gul Shaikh to serve as the Secretary of the Commission. All three persons serve on a voluntary basis.

While the Commission has been asked to provide its Report on nine Terms of Reference (TORs) (published in leading newspapers on 17th February, 2013), one of these TORs was particularly relevant to the upcoming polls. This TOR stated: “To enquire into allegations of media-related corruption and suggest steps to ensure impartial and independent media for the upcoming elections.”

At the outset, the Commission decided to formulate the Report in two parts. Part-One would deal exclusively with the TOR cited above and would be submitted at the earliest to enable the Court, ECP, the Caretaker Governments, media houses and other forums to consider whether the Recommendations dealing with these particular aspects could be implemented during the 50 or 60 day-phase before voting day. Part-Two dealing with the other eight TORs will be submitted by 31st May, 2013.

The Commission began preparations and meetings with stakeholders even before receiving the first instalment of funding support as ordered by the Court from the funds available with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Commencing on 7th February 2013 and concluding on 18th March 2013, meetings were held in Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Quetta and Islamabad with over 165 individuals associated with over 80 organizations. While interaction with this wide range of viewpoints and forums covered all nine TORs, there was specific focus on aspects related to media, advertising and elections.

The First Part of the Report was submitted to the Court on 21st March 2013. The Commission made several Recommendations in eleven different modes. Through self-regulation by media organizations, by individual proprietors, journalists, practitioners; through oversight by ECP; through civil society networks; through official regulations; through Internet-based media; through suggested ECP directives to State-owned media and organizations; through vigilance by Caretaker Governments; through political parties and candidates; through suggested activism by readers, viewers, listeners; through international observers and overseas organizations; through detailed forensic audit and investigation likely to go beyond the Elections’ phase.

Taking prompt note of the Report, the Court in its Order of 2nd April, 2013 directed the ECP to consider the Recommendations of the Commission. Unfortunately, the Court did not issue directions to the other organizations named in the Recommendations. The Commission had formulated eight Recommendations for oversight by ECP alone and a ninth Recommendation in another mode dealing with ECP’s oversight of PTV, PBC and APP. A few days later, the ECP submitted to the Court that one of the principal Recommendations of the Commission could not be implemented by ECP for various reasons.

On 17th April, the complete text of Part-One of the Commission’s Report was placed on the website of the Supreme Court

(http://www.supremecourt.gov.pk/web/user_files/File/MediaCommissionReport.pdf).

In the first part of April, the Court was justifiably concerned with the issue of how secret funds at the disposal of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting were actually used, a subject partially covered by the Commission. The Court’s observations about secret funds and, eventually, the publication of a limited, but not a comprehensive list of recipients of secret funds preoccupied the attention of media.

The Commission’s Recommendations dealing with the role of advertising and media in the elections did not receive any attention whatsoever by the very sector directly involved i.e. the media themselves! As a further consequence, citizens in general and media audiences in particular also remain unaware that the text of the Report can be accessed on the SC website.

With reference to the on-going barrage of TV commercials and newspapers advertisements of the leading political parties, has ECP ensured a level-playing field for all parties for the purchase of time and space in media?

While there is a precise limit to the expenditure by a candidate for the National Assembly i.e. Rs.1.5 million, the amounts being spent by political parties can only be calculated after the elections, and not on an on-going basis. According to a reliable source, one major party from one funding source alone is spending Rs.380 million on advertising. Is the ECP aware of such expenditure?

Real-time transparency and accountability would have been possible if ECP had implemented one of the principal Recommendations of the Commission. This Recommendation proposed that ECP, using either its own resources or the resources of the Caretaker Governments, establish a Political Advertising Cell in ECP itself...

Quote:

“…… all media would receive requests/orders for political advertising through this Cell in ECP and would, in turn, provide invoices to ECP to obtain payment for such advertising, in advance, or within the specified period. Such a proposed Cell would ensure that ECP remains fully informed on the precise space/time being used for political advertising in mass media by candidates and parties and the exact charges being applied by print media and electronic media. Such co-ordination of information would ensure a level playing field for all parties and candidates and conform to the principles of complete transparency and accountability.……

……This proposed Cell-methodology would be superior to the conventional methods of obtaining expenditure statements from parties and candidates on a post-facto basis i.e. after the Elections. This proposed methodology would also prevent the malpractice of discriminatory rates for space and time that could be charged by media in favour of some parties and candidates and to the disadvantage of other parties and candidates, data about which ECP would normally remain un-informed because media, specially TV channels and radio channels can, and do vary their rates from time to time, and from client to client.

Even if Pakistan Broadcasters’ Association implements its laudable intention referred to earlier in this Report in Recommendation No.1 (h) to publicly share data about exact rates to be charged for political/normal advertising, this proposed routing of all political advertising on mass media through ECP would guarantee total transparency and a level playing field.”

Unquote.

In this writer’s opinion whose views herein are in an individual capacity and not on behalf of the Media Commission, ECP has glaringly failed to render a positive role in the media and advertising dimensions of Elections 2013.

(The writer is a former Senator and Federal Minister)