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Beena Sarwar: Pakistan clouded by climate of fear before election

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ZAA NKWETA, PRESENTER: As Pakistan gears up for upcoming parliamentary elections on February 18, observers are reporting pre-election manipulation by government forces in order to influence the vote. The Real News spoke to Pakistani Journalist Beena Sarwar in Pakistan.

BEENA SARWAR, JOURNALIST: The pre-poll manipulations that have happened structurally so far are first of all with the judiciary, secondly with the media, and third with the postings and transfers that have happened all over the country. One of the ways that the manipulations took place was that the independent judiciary was sent packing, and we now have in place a judiciary that took oath under Musharraf’s Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) of November 3. And the election commission, which is a judicial body that oversees the elections, is comprised of judges who took oath under the PCO, and they’re considered to be partisan at this point. So it’s not considered to be an independent body right now. So on November 3, when Musharraf blacked out the media, all the independent media, television channels, a code of conduct was imposed on the media by PEMRA, the Pakistan electronic regulatory authority body. And according to those rules, there are certain restrictions on the media in terms of what they report and how they report. The channels were only restored on air after agreeing to comply with that code of conduct. So now everybody’s very wary of how they report and what they report. And the third thing is that Pakistan Broadcasting Association, which is the owners of the TV channels, and PEMRA, the regulatory body, have agreed upon a code of conduct for electoral coverage which they have not shared with the journalists, which we believe contains various restrictions on coverage of the elections itself.

NKWETA: Following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December of last year, Pakistani officials began to target individuals loyal to Bhutto’s party, registering them as instigators of violence.

SARWAR: In the violence immediately following Benazir Bhutto’s assassination on December 27, when President Musharraf had declared a three-day mourning period and everything was shut down all over, Sindh in particular was completely shut down. But there was a lot of violence. Factories were set on fire, government buildings, police stations, and about 50 people died in the violence during that time. Now, what the demonstration did was it refused that situation to register cases against PPP workers in particular, of Benazir Bhutto’s Party. For example, there’s one journalist I was talking to yesterday in whose town they registered 380 cases against people by name, and then another 49,000 cases against unknown people. And he says the population of the village area that he is in is only 19,000. But they registered 49,000 cases against unknown people, which is called a blind FIR, a blind first information report. And what they do is they say, “Okay, we will nominate people in the FIR once we recognize them.” So in the following phase, a lot of people are nominated on those FIRs, including 78 journalists all over Sindh, according to the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, who has given me a breakdown of all the districts where the journalists were nominated in these FIRs, and that they were recognized, you know, as being part of the violence two days later, or three days later, or a month later. So it’s kind of something that’s hanging over their heads—PPP candidates, electoral candidates, and workers, and journalists reporting the situation. So that created an atmosphere of fear and harassment and intimidation all across Sindh, which is Benazir Bhutto’s People’s Party stronghold. I think it affected campaigning; it affected the pre-electoral process, because as one journalist told me, he said, we are busy running and hiding from the police trying not to get arrested.

NKWETA: In the midst of this bomb blasts continue.

SARWAR: Today there was a bomb blast in a place called Parachinar, where I believe almost 40 people have died so far, and that also, I believe, at a People’s Party rally. Consistently there’s been blasts and violence at public rallies, but interestingly never a blast or an attack at what’s called the King’s Party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Q). These parties that pose a challenge to Musharraf and the parties that support him seem to be being singled out for such attacks, for which no one claims responsibility.

NKWETA: To make matters worse, Human Rights Watch released a report alleging that the attorney general of Pakistan admitted that the upcoming vote would be rigged.

SARWAR: This is a report that Human Rights Watch released two days ago about the attorney general, Malik Qayyum, being taped saying that there is going to be massive rigging. And of course he has denied it. He says it’s not his voice. He said he never said anything like that. But Human Rights say they did a voice signature match, and it is him. I think there’s different ways that people are responding to the situation. One way is, well, I’m not going to bother to go out and vote. Another view is a fear that there’s going to be massive violence on election day, and stock up on your groceries, and stock up on essentials, [so] that you don’t get stranded without the things that you need. And at the same time, there is a sense of hope. BBC Urdu conducted a poll the other day in which almost half the respondents that they talked to hoped that the elections would bring a positive change away from military dominance of Pakistan’s politics and towards a better future. But what could happen is that the people will turn out in numbers to vote. And I think going by the mood of the people, if there is no rigging, all things being equal, the People’s Party and Nawaz Sharif’s Party and the Awami National Party should come into the Parliament in significant numbers to effect a constitutional change. And remember that Musharraf, before he lifted the emergency, before he doffed his military uniform, made as many as 16 amendments to the Constitution just before he did that. So what we’re left with right now is a very mangled constitution, and to make any changes to that and revert it to the original constitution, the Parliament needs a two-thirds majority. A second scenario is, of course, that it is not going to be allowed to happen, because a two-thirds majority could impeach Musharraf and get him out of the way. And, of course, America doesn’t want that. The third situation is, the dire one, which is that there’s going to be so much violence and so much chaos that the elections will either be postponed or they’ll be declared invalid, in which case, you know, you’ll have more of a continuation of the same-old, same-old, as they say.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Beena Sarwar is a journalist in Pakistan, former Editor 'The News on Sunday' and Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. She is currently based in Karachi.