Media-savvy Imran embarks on international ‘charm offensive’

Published March 16, 2023
LAHORE: In an interview with a foreign news outlet, former prime minister Imran Khan holds up an empty tear gas canister that was fired into his home.—AFP
LAHORE: In an interview with a foreign news outlet, former prime minister Imran Khan holds up an empty tear gas canister that was fired into his home.—AFP

LONDON: This week, as Zaman Park turned into a battleground between diehard PTI supporters and law enforcement agencies officials, party chairman and former prime minister Imran Khan sat at the dining table of his family home — where he often records interviews with media — and told the world what was happening.

With an on-and-off ban on Mr Khan’s speeches and press conferences by the government back home, Mr Khan’s savvy media cell kicked into action, ensuring that his message is disseminated to the world via international media hubs.

In a matter of a few days, Mr Khan has managed to record interviews with major international channels such as CNN, BBC and Sky News, as well as smaller media platforms such as Vice News and Voice of America.

Mr Khan’s message that he is “prepared for arrest” and his criticism of the incumbent government reached all his followers, as well as billions across the world.

Scenes of chaos outside Zaman Park, where protesters were chanting Mr Khan’s name and holding his photos, were repeatedly aired on international TV and social media channels.

Action against PTI leader becomes top story for most foreign news outlets

Al Jazeera interviewed Mr Khan’s diehard supporters in Lahore, some of whom were wiping their tears in the aftermath of police firing tear gas at them.

One told the platform he would “stand outside” to protect Mr Khan for as long as required, sending a message about the ex-premier’s popularity to the world.

Mr Khan’s media team is sophisticated, and knows well how to disseminate his message. Last night, Mr Khan’s dining table was covered with the empty shells of tear gas canisters that were fired into his home — a powerful visual re-shared by scores on social media.

The PTI chairman’s outreach to the international media comes as no surprise given the curbs on him.

Amnesty International too cri­ticised the prohibition on bro­adcasting the speeches of embattled former prime minister.

Amnesty expressed concern over the “volatile situation in Lahore” and urged authorities to maintain law and order within the remits of what is legal, necessary and proportionate under international human rights law.

“We call on authorities to exercise restraint and to ensure their response at all times is in accordance with international human rights law standards,” it tweeted.

In comparison to other political parties, PTI’s media wing is organised and acts fast. “They are aware. They know who the international correspondents are, they know what they cover and they have dedicated people who reach out and make the interviews happen,” one foreign correspondent told Dawn.

Some point out that before he came to power and even after his ouster, Mr Khan’s media cell was a well-oiled machine. It was when he was prime minister, weighed down by the constraints of the “byzantine bureaucracy” that media engagements became challenging.

It also helps, they said, that Mr Khan himself has longstanding relationships in the international media, especially in England. “After Benazir Bhutto, he is the only charismatic leader in Pakistan, whether you love him or hate him,” said a journalist working for a legacy media group.

“He was an integral part of pop culture in the UK for people who came of age in the 70s and 80s.”

Next door in India, news websites are cashing in on viral moments of the Zaman Park fiasco by posting videos of the clash, as well as a short clip of him in a gas mask outside his home.

For a government that desperately wanted to block Mr Khan’s narrative and deny him coverage, the plan backfired, as Mr Khan became a top news story on every international channel overnight.

At a time when more people watch the news on their phones as compared to traditional televisions, the broadcasting of his message on international media channels means his video messages are viral on social media platforms in Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, March 16th, 2023

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