As Pakistan approaches its third consecutive election on 25 July Dr Kiran Hassan, an associate fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, explains why she disagrees with those who argue that the Pakistani military is micro managing the media during the current election campaign.

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 PMLN (the last ruling political party) and favour Imran Khan’s PTI election campaign.

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 the military is directing the highly corporatised 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 focussing 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 (Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz) domestic popularity has been in sharp decline because of his corruption scams 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 accountabilty court after the Panama scandal.

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.

The second reason why the military cannot steer the 2018 election media campaign is because the Pakistani private media has been heavily corporatised since 2002. Election time is money-making time for most private media houses.

In ‘The media take centre stage’ (Journal of Democracy, 2008) Khan and Joseph 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. Each of the leading party used paid ads. Only 13 per cent of the party advertisements appeared on the state-run PTV; the remaining 87 per cent went to private television channels (Khan and Joseph, p.36).

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 charged $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 told them that the top-rated channels charged $2,200 per minute for the 9–10pm slot. Apparently, the main three parties were spending up to $300,000 on their television campaigns.

All political parties in recent years have gathered unlimited funds for this purpose and spending for the 2018 election will exceed the 2013 levels. Every day political talk shows take prime time space on at least 10 television channels where the invited guests 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 wants 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 44m Pakistanis, comprising roughly a quarter of the total population, use social media and the majority of them are young people. Nearly half (42.4m) of nearly 97m registered voters are between 18 and 35, and this vote will determine the outcome of the country’s elections.

With this in mind, political parties have been heavily investing into their social media presence mainly 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 a personalised access to thousands of such voters. The two main political parties, PMLN and PTI, enjoy a huge presence on social media.

There have been many articles accusing all political parties 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. One significant player – in this case, the Pakistani military – cannot manoeuvre the social media space.

Even though, Dawn (a leading media group) accuses the military of giving it a tough time for publishing a story favouring Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani military does not have the autonomy to dominate the media space, which would enable it to deliver the ‘correct’ result on 25 July.

On the one hand, the daily pre-election media activity of televised political carnage comprising 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.

Dr Kiran Hassan is an associate fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, part of the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published and spoken about Pakistan’s political, foreign policy and media issues on various academic and policy platforms.