The info ministry’s a joke

Published May 8, 2022
The writer is a lawyer and columnist from Okara. The views expressed in this article are his own.
The writer is a lawyer and columnist from Okara. The views expressed in this article are his own.

CRITICISM, however scathing, is a thing to be appreciated when it stems from a place of good faith.

That’s a great general rule to remember in life, and even better to note when you’re trying to reason with antiquated dinosaurs with thick wallets and thin skins. This one deserves equal parts of condemnation and ridicule for its own good. But bear in mind, it isn’t a person, or even a group. It’s a system of bureaucratic excess and state-sanctioned lunacy that’s as baffling as it is defeatist.

Consider the current state of Pakistani media. Last week, if you switched on the news, you’d see a headline — ‘Foreign conspiracy conclusively denied’. Then you’d switch the channel. ‘Foreign conspiracy undeniably confirmed’. But you might have missed a third channel; the one funded by your taxes to serve as a recourse for situations like this. To be free of corporate influence and editorial biases, providing objective truths, impartial investigations, and concise, ethical journalism.

Instead of doing any of these things, the Pakistan Television Corporation was doing an hour-long segment on agriculture. Then a press conference by the information minister, followed by old videos of the prime minister. On YouTube you can see what was on screen for 12 hours prior to a live broadcast. A solid 50 per cent of that time was devoted to these two individuals’ faces. The rest, to sophisticated, fearless themes of reportage like ‘promoting positivity’, ‘soft image of Pakistan’, ‘current PM = good’, and ‘India = bad’.

It’s an oft-said adage in journalism that when one person says it’s raining and the other says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look outside the window and tell the people the truth. PTV’s policy seems to be to shut the window, lock the doors, and hide under the bed lest its existence offends anyone.

PTV’s policy seems to be to shut the window.

This isn’t their people’s fault; several programmes are doing brilliant work. But they’re bound by the nature of its organisational structure. Silenced for absurd reasons. Suspended for a single tweet. Condemned to walk on eggshells in a system where talent isn’t rewarded, mediocrity not punished, and the only incentive is to follow the status quo.

See, there are two kinds of taxpayer-funded news channels. There are those that serve the people of a country — think BBC. Then there are those that serve the people running the country — think North Korea. Guess which one we have?

PTV is a ‘state broadcaster’, as opposed to a ‘public broadcaster’. Which is a very polite way of saying ‘propaganda mouthpiece’. But the problem isn’t just that we failed to emulate the UK with BBC. We managed to fail at modelling North Korea too. Because for arguments sake, if your goal as a country is really to play a discount Goebbels and attempt to brainwash the masses through television, you’re not doing a very good job at it.

It’s no longer 1964. When people see reportage so biased as to appear cartoonish, they can change the channel. Turn off the TV and turn on TikTok, pick their poison and swallow their propaganda from the glorious free market of the internet. So, what you end up with is a Looney Tunes situation where one Wile E. Coyote is repeatedly trying and failing to achieve its nefarious ends, chasing a road runner named ‘soft image of Pakistan’ as it falls off cliffs and finds itself underneath crashing boulders.

It wasn’t always this way. At its inception, PTV was a world class broadcaster with content striking the perfect balance between informative and entertaining, producing unforgettable gems still ingrained in Pakistani pop culture.

But under an increasingly tight leash by the ministry, it’s been mercilessly crippled from a national treasure to a self-defeating cacophony of faux nationalism that would be laughable if it was­n’t at your ex­­pense. What once brought joy and knowledge to millions now caters to an audience of one. Its offices are shrines to transient political power, adorned with portraits of current leadership, replaced within hours of new ones being sworn in.

Past ministers have vowed to usher impartiality. But I’m sorry to break it to you — that doesn’t work while you’re still in the room. The information ministry needs to completely remove PTV from its purview and shift its focus from the propaganda to the productive. Revive the film industry, promote talented youth, uplift content creators, reduce censorship, and so much more.

Once thus removed, PTV must serve as a public broadcaster again. Because there is no discernible reason for the Pakistani people to subsidise the satiation of some politicians’ narcissistic tendencies. Neither for egos to be so fragile that they need whole organisations, hundreds of employees, and millions of rupees to say nice things about them on television. That’s not a policy, it’s a joke. And jokes deserve to be discarded when they’re not funny anymore.

The writer is a lawyer and columnist from Okara. Views expressed are his own.
Twitter: @hkwattoo1

Published in Dawn, May 8th, 2022

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