Hands-on oversight by Imran of PTI narrative

Published December 16, 2020
The prime minister holds a meeting of his spokespersons on a regular basis and the officially-released statements from the meeting usually make headlines on TV and newspapers. — APP/File
The prime minister holds a meeting of his spokespersons on a regular basis and the officially-released statements from the meeting usually make headlines on TV and newspapers. — APP/File

ISLAMABAD: The life of a party spokesperson may be enriched by the glare of media attention but within the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) it presents a unique challenge: you are one WhatsApp message away from Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Those from within the party entrusted informally with the responsibility of pushing the government’s narrative form a semi-official group of spokespersons who have a regular debriefing session with the prime minister on a fairly regular basis. Most of them are not notified as official spokespersons for the government or the party.

A senior party official tells Dawn the prime minister personally gives various spokespersons feedback on their performance through WhatsApp. It is not always a pat on the back.

Details of how this narrative-building mechanism works directly under the prime minister’s supervision were shared with Dawn by insiders in the Prime Minister Office (PMO).

The prime minister holds a meeting of his spokespersons on a regular basis and the officially-released statements from the meeting usually make headlines on TV and newspapers. In one such meeting held on Monday — a day after the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) jalsa in Lahore — the prime minister was reported as terming the opposition’s event a ‘flop show’.

Fawad Chaudhry, federal Minister for Science and Technology, who was the PTI government’s first information minister, explained to Dawn: “Those party leaders and cabinet members who are regular guests on TV shows make up this informal group of the government’s spokespersons and are regularly invited by the prime minister to the PM Office or his residence at Banigala for a meeting that lasts about 90 minutes.”

He said some such people who reside outside Islamabad join the meeting through video link.

These spokespersons — after being armed with the latest narrative on trending issues — are launched on to various media platforms where they are expected to push this narrative with the force of conviction. Officials say their performance is monitored closely for feedback and assessment.

Officials say the mechanism works like this: If there is a technical issue that requires to be propagated or defended, the relevant minister or adviser is invited to the meeting to give a briefing to these spokespersons with a specific focus on the headlined matter.

“For example Shahzad Akbar is called to give updates on accountability and corruption cases of opposition leaders and Finance Minister Hafeez Shaikh is invited to share details on the economy,” said an official who has attended such meetings.

A federal minister said these meetings provide an opportunity to these spokespersons to get their policy line straight from the top while availing the chance to ask questions, give suggestions and acquire a better understanding of the ‘how’s’ and ‘why’s’ of the policy line under discussion.

Those who are said to be regular members of the forum are Information Minister Shibli Faraz, Minister for Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry, Minister for Planning and Development Asad Umar, Education Minister Shafqat Mehmood, Minister for Industries Hammad Azhar, SAPM on Youth Affairs Usman Dar, Senator Faisal Javed, Federal Minister for Communication Murad Saeed, Nadeem Afzal Gondal, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information Rauf Hassan, SAPM Shahbaz Gill, Walid Iqbal, Kanwal Shauzab, Malika Bukhari and Sadaqat Abbasi.

An official of PMO said contrary to usual practice, when minutes of the prime minister’s meeting are prepared and an official press release is issued, meetings of the spokespersons remains informal and no press release is issued afterwards. “Even officials from the PM House are not allowed to attend these meetings,” he added.

Published in Dawn, December 16th, 2020

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