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A leaf from history: The publicity perception

June 23, 2013

By April 1976, the official machinery established for evolving an election strategy had convinced Z.A. Bhutto that he was the true follower of the founder of the nation, Quaid-i-Azam, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and the people considered him to be the one who would translate the founder’s dreams. This pushed the party workers into a frenzy, especially as they were not being consulted at the grassroots level.

The decision about the date for holding the elections had to be considered as the geographical and climatic conditions were important factors. However, Dr Mubashir Hasan wanted to choose a time which would best reflect the party’s claims. Keeping all aspects in view, Bhutto took up the issue with his mini-cabinet that comprised Maulana Kausar Niazi, Abdul Hafeez Pirzada, Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi and a few of his close advisers such as Rafi Raza and Rao Rashid. The early meetings on the subject proved futile, hinting that Bhutto was not in sync with his advisors.

In June 1976, Bhutto realised that he had to take the reins in his hands; he also realised that the campaign would be lost without adequate publicity. But it was a grave mistake to believe that his election cell, comprising bureaucrats, would deliver the goods. He was made to believe that the official broadcasting network, i.e. Radio Pakistan and Pakistan Television, and the party’s print mouthpiece, the daily Musawat, were enough to project his and the party’s image. One fails to understand how a person like Bhutto could depend on a party paper and official broadcasting system, when the concept of a party newspaper had died down elsewhere in the world. Bhutto knew the wretched conditions of the daily Musawat which had no credibility; hence, he asked Rao Rashid to form press and publicity committees.

On June 14, 1976 Bhutto asked Maulana Kausar Niazi to look after the party newspaper as it had not been getting appropriate support from “responsible personalities”. In a letter, the prime minister admitted that the party newspaper Musawat was not up to the mark to compete with the other Urdu dailies which had a larger circulation, and asked the maulana to extend help to enable it to compete with the rest. Bhutto mentioned that senior correspondents had been placed in the federal and provincial capitals; these journalists were Sajjad Haider and A.B.S. Jafri for English and Zahurul Hassan and Nazir Naji for Urdu, who, according to Bhutto, were experienced hands; he also asked for more attention from the information ministry.

Knowing the importance of publicity two teams were formed: one comprising officials and the other comprising four newsmen (two for English and two for Urdu) which was called the operation team.

Maulana Niazi knew the importance as well as the tedious nature of the work involved in the field of publicity and followed the instructions. He knew the power of the media, but was in no position to repair the damage done by the government to the press during the past five years. It had created a wedge between the government and the newsmen who were trying to guide the government but in return faced harassment and humiliation. Niazi had a daunting task; he failed, not because of lack of effort but owing to the wounds inflicted on the press by government policies which had offended the entire media.

The closure of newspapers, curbing press freedom through press laws, using advertisements and newsprint quota as leverage, the indiscriminate arrest of newsmen under the Defence of Pakistan Rules (DPR) and centralising the declaration of newspapers were the few tactics that were used to suppress the truth during the whole period of the PPP rule. The depth of desperation and anger of the press can be imagined from one resolution adopted by the federal executive council of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists held on Nov 10, 1975 demanding repeal of all undemocratic laws — especially the DPR and the Press and Publication Ordinance — withdrawal of all executive actions taken against newspapers, journals and journalists under such laws, full guarantee of civil liberties in general and an immediate end to press advice in all its diverse forms.

The public was fully aware of the strong-arm tactics being employed by the government against the media and this led to a huge credibility gap. The people no longer believed in any government action or announcement, instead they began to turn to foreign broadcasting services especially the BBC.

Amid such a situation Maulana Niazi found his task very difficult, rather impossible. The summaries prepared by the information departments at the centre and the provinces meant for briefing the prime minister, governors and chief ministers at breakfast included only the positive news items — a very negative attempt to keep the rulers ignorant about the people’s feelings. The government continued in happy ignorance and there was no way Maulana Niazi and his team could control the damage.