New team, new challenge, old problem. Thus continues the saga of PTI and its unending list of information czars chasing moving targets that dance with shadows.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has brought in the big guns. Shibli Faraz as federal information minister brings with him goodwill ammunition that should last him a while even in these tense times. Retired Lt Gen Asim Saleem Bajwa as special assistant to the prime minister (SAPM) comes armed with impressive experience of media management and strategic communication.
Yet, there are complications.
Let’s rewind. PTI stormed into power laden with goodwill, good intentions and good institutional support. Other than these, it was fairly clueless. In this exalted state of cluelessness, the party leadership found comfort in familiarity. Fawad Chaudhry was the obvious by-product of this familiarity. As the communicator-in-chief during the Panama Leaks case when PTI was clawing its way out of political setbacks, Fawad was the obvious — and perhaps the only — choice for the information ministry. PTI had just won a gruelling election after a brutal campaign that had followed fiery few years combating the PML-N. Fawad fit the mood of the moment, and that of his leader. Information meant warfare. Warfare meant the minister going for the opponents’ jugular. Every hour of every day.
But soon — as was wont to happen — the burden of governance began to weigh down upon the simple joys of cursing out your opponents. Someone had to work too. Work may yet be optional within the corridors of power, but conspiracy is a compulsion. And so it happened that as the PTI government settled down into the addictive comforts of power — oh those plush offices, liveried attendants and fawning staff — it also began to silently groan under the inevitable heft of factionalism.
Whispers, ears and power make a potent combination. The hubris of dissolving hopes and diluting enchantments fell upon many a favoured one. Fawad was one of them. He was eased out of Information and exiled to the Ministry of Science and Technology.
It wasn’t just the ministers who were changing. So were times, and along with them the demands upon the domain of information and communication. While thinking women and men were mulling over these matters, Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan suddenly and without warning gate-crashed the information ministry and sent many a party loyalist scurrying for cover. Along with her political baggage, the good doctor brought with her tonnes of uber-confidence to take the war to the opposition in words that cut deep. Yet she struggled to grasp the shifting sands of her job’s expanding requirements and expectations. What were these requirements and expectations?
In the 20 months since PTI has been in power, the mandate of the information and media set-up has been a series of experiments based on the projected and often perceived desires of the leader himself. The strategy makes surreal sense: attack and insult the opposition while attacking and insulting the media while picking needless fights with the opposition while picking even more needless fights with the media. There must have been an end objective for this strategy conjured by some geniuses deep within the bowels of the government, but these objectives are so well-camouflaged that even those propagating them have little idea what they are in terms of tangibles.
Scale up and you see a strategy adrift in a sea of directionless tactics. No wonder then that alarm bells started ringing in places where they matter. Information ministry is expected to not only sell the government narrative, but it is supposed to craft the communication architecture for the state and fuel up a high-octane national story. If you racked up these objectives on one side and the ability of the government’s media team on the other side, the difference was rather conspicuous in its starkness.
But wait. There’s more.
The information ministry is a sum total of various important parts: PTV, PBC (Radio Pakistan), APP (state news agency) along with the ministry itself that encapsulates key offices like the Principal Information Officer (PIO), External Publicity Wing, Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) and a host of other sections. These have worked for decades like the bureaucracy that they are, often times oblivious to the ferocious winds of change blowing across this (often) barren landscape. But today the key question is not what the ministry of information is expected to do but, in fact, what the minister of information is expected to do?
The answer must precede expectations that continue to rise in direct proportion to the ambiguity of the task. Traditionally, the minister of information has grappled with three distinct tasks: (1) Governance of institutions (PTV, PBC, APP — even though many are now run by autonomous boards); (2) Dealing with media owners, journalists and stakeholders and managing these key relationships; (3) Amplifying the government’s narrative and defending official policies as the official spokesperson.
But in times like now, are these the tasks on which the minister of information is weighed? Are these the scales that Fawad Chaudhry and Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan were measured on? As the new team takes charge at the ministry, it is absolutely critical that the prime minister clarifies what he wants his information team to do that will — in his mind — constitute success. Which one of the following does he see as the most important function of an information minister?
(a) Blast political opponents as viciously as possible in the strongest language possible; (b) explain government policies in an effective manner and defend against criticism; (c) influence public opinion through persuasive short- and long-term communication strategies and build bridges with the media for effective dissemination of the government’s perspective; (d) craft a state narrative that weaves a national story and influences regional and global public opinion.
The easiest answer, of course, is “all of the above”. But that is not possible. It never is. The leader must prioritise his preferences before he can judge the person responsible for carrying them out.
Published in Dawn, April 30th, 2020