WE are told that these are dark times for the Pakistani media, that dissent is being stifled in ways that make the Spanish inquisition look like a mildly unpleasant parent-teacher meeting.
But I’m here to tell you that this is possibly the most media-friendly government that we have ever seen. Forget Faisal Vawda’s ‘I’ll throw away your mic’ bluster or the accusations of fake news levelled at anyone who writes something vaguely critical. Focus instead on the positive, on the fact that we — the media — are provided a steady stream of inanity that allows us to avoid doing any real work and focus on what really gets our juices flowing and the ratings rising: silliness.
The latest episode of this accidental comedy series (season one isn’t even over yet, folks!) is the non-appointment of (un)spokesperson Dr Farrukh Saleem.
The tale of the ‘spokesman’ is the latest episode of the comedy series.
On Oct 9 last year came a tweet from Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry informing us that this worthy gentleman will be appointed government spokesperson for economy and energy affairs. This was a good move since one issue that afflicts all Pakistani governments is that everyone considers themselves to be qualified to comment on subjects that, frankly, they know nothing about. And when it comes to an issue as important as the economy, it makes sense to have a single person do the talking, given that the markets tend to be incredibly sensitive to off-the-cuff comments from government representatives.
Having been Twitter-appointed (notification to follow), Dr Saleem started discharging his duties by appearing on talk shows as the government spokesperson, defending and explaining the PTI’s economic policies. This continued for months until it seems that one such appearance sealed his fate. In this swansong, Dr Saleem criticised some government policies, saying that they were covering up the symptoms without really addressing the cause. He also critiqued the recent devaluation of the rupee, saying that — contrary to expectations — exports had also declined along with the rupee. Predictably, the opposition and media jumped on this and a rollicking good time was had by all.
But later that same night came another tweet from Fawad Chaudhry. Taking the form of a clarification, the tweet told us that while Dr Saleem ‘ought’ to have been appointed, there was a ban on appointments in place, so he was never actually appointed, and that his opinions were thus his own and had always been so. In this Pakistani version of The Matrix, there never was a spoon and if you called the spoon a spoon, well, that was your own fault for not waiting for an official notification telling you there is no spoon and never was.
Once the PTI’s volunteer spin bowlers went into play on social media, it was the lack of an official notification that they opened their assault with. When asked why no one from had bothered to clarify Dr Saleem’s status when he was representing the government on various platforms, we were told that this was the media’s fault for (yet again) not doing its due diligence. Why did we not demand a letter of appointment from Dr Saleem when he showed up? Do we just let any random person saunter into our studios and claim he is the King of France without first examining his royal jewels?
Granted, one shouldn’t expect much better from us deplorables, but surely official state media (which comes under the information ministry) should know better. But alas, PTV and Radio Pakistan also had no idea and kept on referring to Dr Saleem as the spokesperson as late as Dec 25. Not only that, but he also kept on attending official meetings, with none being the wiser. It’s sort of like a man wearing a lab coat walking into a hospital and performing surgeries in the presence of the head of surgery, who says ‘hey what’s the harm?’ until the said person makes an incorrect incision after which the patient is asked why on earth they didn’t check the ‘doctor’s’ degree before he cut into them.
Another defence offered was in the form of a clip from a talk show that aired on Dec 11 last year. In this, the information minister tells the host that Dr Saleem’s appointment never actually transpired. Note that this was a side comment during a talk show. If the assumption is that this can substitute for an official announcement, then that is beyond farcical as it then follows that the government does not consider this post important enough to even bother letting us know that the man representing the government on the economy was not in fact the man representing the government on the economy.
But in all this, one should take heart at this small fact: that all those warning of the impending rise of fascism in Pakistan are deluded. Fascism requires focus, discipline and cold efficiency. We can’t do fascism. What we can do is folly, and we do it bloody well.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, January 7th, 2019