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Watching Pakistan vote : An interesting story from the BBC

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    Watching Pakistan vote : An interesting story from the BBC

    A BBC journalist attempts to visit some rural polling booths in Pakistan on referendum day but finds himself the victim of a well-orchestrated media operation.

    By Adam Mynott
    BBC South Asia correspondent

    The very idea of a media facility trip conjures up all sorts of benign images.

    A trip - indicating a degree of leisurely travel, and not just a trip but a facility one as well - smiling, helpful faces all round. Nothing, though, could be further from the truth.

    What a facility trip offers the media is a chance to get to places that would otherwise be inaccessible or difficult to reach, and for the facilitators a chance to plant some prepared images and thoughts where they will get wide coverage.

    Invariably it turns into a bitter struggle - a psychological battle to get one over on each other.

    The facility trip in Islamabad was a visit on referendum day to polling stations across Pakistan.

    The organisation making the offer was the Pakistan Government. It was, of course, bent on showing what a success the referendum was turning out to be.

    The lucky few

    Stage one of the psychological battle was to render us weak with gratitude for being included. My cameraman Nick Millard and I had been told we were immensely fortunate to be chosen.

    From a cast list of hundreds we had just made it through the selection panel.

    Stage two, by the charming men from the ministry, was to tell us that we could go and do exactly where and what we wanted - to convince us that this trip was entirely for our benefit not for theirs.

    We boarded a helicopter and strapped ourselves in. I was keen to go to some rural polling stations to see if people in far-flung villages were either able or willing to vote.

    The man from the Information Ministry looked nervously at his clipboard and, with a less than reassuring smile, said: "No problem at all Mr Mynott, we will do anything we can to help you. First we are going to Lahore."

    To stop people voting more than once they had their thumbs marked with indelible ink

    With a population of nine million Lahore hardly counts as rural, but I did not want to appear churlish. Another reporter was also complaining that he did not want to go a city but to the countryside.

    The pilot started the engines and we were soon clattering our way over the parched landscape heading south.

    The ear-numbing din in the cockpit had prevented us from pressing our case further. Gut as soon as the rotors stopped in Lahore we asked again if we could go to some rural polling stations.

    "Yes it's in the programme," came the reply as we were ushered into a waiting mini-van and off into the frantic bustle of Lahore, past the beautiful red stone fort and into the old walled city.

    We arrived at a street corner where a large group of men with Pakistan flags were sitting under an awning, sheltering from the blistering sun.

    Perfect timing

    As we came into view, they jumped to their feet. We drove past them and circled round the block a couple of times, looking I imagined for a polling station.

    But no, this was a strategic facility trip delay to allow the crowd - now chanting "Long live General Musharraf" and waving their flags furiously - to get into position.

    And I had to admire the timing. As we came to a halt the boisterous band of eager voters strode in b*****shing their ID cards.

    Five minutes later amid scenes of vibrant democracy in action the man from the ministry said: "Mr Mynott you have not filmed anything or interviewed anyone."

    Deserted booths

    I explained that it all looked a bit set-up and I asked again about getting out to some villages. "Yes, yes, yes." And we set off for another polling station.

    Ignoring several deserted booths along the way, we stopped at one thronging with more eager voters.

    As I mingled with the electorate I was told that one woman in the queue had said she was voting for a second or third time. Now this was a story.

    I asked Nick to film her casting her ballot and we prepared to interview her. But we were foiled.

    An alert ministry official had worked out what we were up to and collared the woman, telling her not to vote again and above all not to talk to us.

    To stop people voting more than once, they had their thumb daubed with indelible ink after they had marked their ballot form.

    An old wound

    I noticed several people coming forward to register with one hand tucked firmly behind their back in the folds of their clothing.

    Rudely, but in the interests of democratic justice, I grabbed one man's arm and looked closely at his concealed hand.

    His thumb seemed to bear the unmistakable sign of indelible ink. "No, no," I was assured by the polling booth head man. "Not ink. That's the scar of an old wound".

    He seemed to display intimate knowledge of this complete stranger's medical history.

    I peered more closely at the blue mark, but a familiar figure appeared at my side. "Time to leave Mr Mynott," and we were bundled back into the van.

    "The helicopter leaves for Islamabad in 15 minutes."

    "What about the rural polling booths?"

    "Maybe next time."