LAHORE: Perturbed by media focus on government failure in containing polio spread in the country, the Polio Eradication Programme has decided to establish a dedicated cell aimed at ‘restricting the flow of information’.
According to sources and official documents, an international organisation through official correspondence has shared information on handling the media through a document titled ‘Pakistan Emergency Polio Communications Strategy’. The document also reveals that a rapid response media cell has been devised.
It claims the media in Pakistan speculates and reports inaccurately on polio eradication. The document that has been shared with high-ranking officials of the Punjab health administration and senior brass of the polio programme by the foreign agency reveals that the Polio Media Response Cell (PMRC) will be housed at the World Health Organisation (WHO) and respond to media queries/reports according to their categorisation.
“Pakistani media reports that are based on misinformation or inaccurate facts have the potential to create a snowball effect and result in caregivers refusing the oral polio vaccination,” states the document.
It claims that the PMRC will work directly under an entity called the National Communications Technical Committee (NCTC) and will consist of five officials from the foreign organisation, WHO and the federal Polio Eradication Programme. It also reveals that the Shakeel Afridi incident and religious misconceptions have had an impact on the polio drive in the country.
“Public concerns regarding the volume of funds landing in Pakistan for polio eradication, violent attacks on vaccinators and the fallout of the Shakeel Afridi fake polio immunisation campaign as well as misconceptions and religious edicts about the efficacy of the vaccine have been impacting the image of implementing partners and have brought significant media and international attention to the anti-polio efforts,” the document states further.
Most interestingly, it claims “strong disciplinary action” against any partner agency that shares any official document while violating the protocols with a media organisation. However, it fails to justify a law or clause of the constitution through which action would be taken.
A senior official in the Punjab Information Department claimed the addition of such a clause in official correspondence was violation of the right to information (RTI) law that the government was working actively on.
“While the federal and provincial governments are making all-out efforts to make public access to information easy, authors of such documents should be themselves considered for serious disciplinary action for violating the RTI law,” he remarked.Mazhar Nisar, spokesman for the Ministry of National Health Services Regulations and Coordination, feigned ignorance about the document.
However, his name is mentioned in the document along with MNA Ayesha Raza Farooq as key spokespeople on polio for the PMRC. He stated the federal government believed in freedom of the press and polio eradication being the “largest ever public sector health initiative” of the country was a programme for the people of Pakistan. “It is the right of the public to know about each and everything that happens inside or around the programme,” he added.
“Very shortly, we will be launching a media facilitation unit aimed at providing timely and accurate information to the masses at large. The cell will work hand in hand with the media to provide them proactive information on new polio cases, parental refusals, efforts of the government to eradicate polio and our commitment towards the cause,” Nisar said.