While the returning officers are in the process of scrutinising the nomination papers filed by prospective candidates to determine their eligibility for becoming members of the federal and provincial legislatures, there prevails an ambience of confusion and uncertainty among them concerning the procedure and parameters for carrying out this all-important task.

Media reports suggest that the returning officers are not sure about the procedures in the absence of any comprehensive guidelines by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), particularly with regard to the mechanism to understand the basics of tax defaulters that was communicated to it by the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) on March 21.

Indeed, this lapse is not by intent, but a sequel to the prevailing circumstances that have thrown upon the ECP the responsibility to deal with a myriad of issues, including evolving a new mechanism to hold impartial elections, resolving the overseas Pakistanis’ voting issue and drawing up a collaborative system between the ECP and other government departments to achieve the desired goals. One hopes that it might have already rectified the situation against the backdrop of reported requests by the returning officers, wherever the instructions might not have reached.

It is, however, painful to note that a section of the media is determined to cavil at anything done by the ECP and also bring its neutrality, independence and credibility into question by insinuating that some of its members have their loyalties with the PPP. What is being overlooked by the proponents of this view is that the ECP is endeavouring to hold elections under the Supreme Court’s oversight, which has repeatedly maintained that it would ensure they are conducted in conformity with the true spirit of the constitution.

The ECP has strengthened its credentials as an independent and impartial entity by having all high level bureaucrats replaced by the caretaker setups, who were appointed by the outgoing governments on the basis of their loyalties. In compliance with the court orders, the processes for stopping fake degree holders and dual nationals in their tracks are being firmed up to ensure that only people with good character can make it to the Assemblies.

The proposal to introduce a column “none of the above” on the ballot paper, giving voters the option to reject all the candidates contesting in a constituency, is reflective of the ECP’s commitment to make the elections meaningful. But there is a need to build consensus among all stakeholders before it is enacted through an ordinance.

Having said that, it needs to be emphasised that the ECP and, for that matter, any other institution cannot rectify instantly all the maladies afflicting our political landscape. Whatever its detractors might say, the fact remains that the ECP is doing a fine job despite time constraints and organisational inadequacies. Political observers believe that the polls this time will be quite different.

Another very important step is the issuance of a code of conduct by the ECP for the media concerning the issues pertaining to election coverage. While the Pakistani media enjoys unfettered freedom of expression, a section of it is neglectful of its responsibility towards the society. It, like the political parties, is polarised and afflicted with biases against their supposed rivals, propagating views of the parties they have affiliations with. Undoubtedly, the media is a defining characteristic of a country’s political system. Therefore, these guideline were utmost necessary.

A pluralist media disseminating correct information about the events to the society and acting as a forum for free, unbiased and non-partisan debate on issues of national importance, is an indispensable entity in a democratic dispensation. So any digression from the accepted norms of social responsibility by it justifies intervention by the government or other state organs such as the ECP.

The media needs to be mindful of the fact that there is no concept of unbridled freedom of expression anywhere in the world. Resorting to falsehood, misreporting, distorting facts and dishing out speculative stuff, as well as propagating partisan views, do not fall in the domain of freedom of expression. This kind of behaviour is not tolerated even in the societies, which boast of freedom of media as the hallmark of their polity.  The media has a greater role to play in consolidating the gains of democracy. It has to use its power to change perceptions and help people make good choices during the election. It is, indeed, obligatory on the media to rise above all considerations, except national interest.

The ensuing elections are being billed as a defining moment in the history of Pakistan and a milestone that will determine the direction the country will take in the future. The media has to make sure that it keeps itself away from taking sides, playing favourites or presenting an unbalanced picture of the election campaign.

Moreover, it has to inform and educate people about the challenges ahead, discuss the manifestoes of all political parties in an objective manner and curb the propensities to scandalise events or portraying issues tinged with biases of any kind.

The writer is a freelance columnist.  Email: ashpak10@gmail.com