By: Agha Haider Raza
During his near-decade of power, Pervez Musharraf introduced many different pieces of legislation. The public at large admonished some laws, while few regulations were applauded. However, one ordinance in particular, Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), signed in to law by 2002 is (should be) praised by all. The said ordinance not only capsized Musharraf’s regime, but has also brought a vibrant and dynamic media sector to Pakistan. The beauty of an independent media, free from the ownership of the state, provides room for an accountability mechanism in a democratic setup. Unfortunately the power players in Pakistan have not been able to understand and utilize this powerful domain.
Today, the power of social media has brought an end to decade old dictatorships, initiated revolutions and has been instrumental in mobilizing people to band together for a common cause. Due to the enactment of PEMRA, there has been a tsunami of news channels and talk shows on Pakistani airwaves. With the media’s influence spreading across a wide spectrum of society, it comes as a surprise that the Pakistani government and opposition parties have not understood the true essence and effectiveness of the media.
The idea behind penning this article stemmed from the circus and fiasco surrounding President Zardari and his ‘heart-ailment’. These discrepancies are highlighted in two separate press releases issued by the Government. PR. No. 34 December 6th 2011 states “President Zardari Tuesday evening left for Dubai to visit his children and also to undergo some medical tests.” “According to the President’s personal physician Col. Salman the proposed medical test are of routine nature”. Then, the very next day, PR No. 39 December 7th, 2011 articulates, “The President went to Dubai following symptoms related to his pre-existing heart condition. After the initial medical tests in Dubai, Doctors found him to be in stable condition. The President went to Dubai at the insistence of his children.”
No disrespect to official spokespersons or Ministers but the number of diverse press releases emanating from the Presidency puts them at par with Mansoor Ijaz. Why not tame the flames that were fanned by Twitter and The Cable and issue a coherent statement. Was it a routine medical check-up or was he suffering chest-pains prior to departure? Did the President go to Dubai to visit his children or did his children send him to Dubai?
These disjointed statements gave fuel to the very conspiracy theorists most progressive and conservative commentators admonish. Talk shows were set ablaze with the trivial pursuit of the President, while foreign newspapers were inking stories of a silent-coup taking place in Pakistan. Was it really necessary for the country to become the laughing stock of the global arena because of a communication fiasco?
The incompetence exhibited by the ruling elite has allowed conspiracy theorists to run amuck in the media space. In the aftermath of the OBL Operation on May 2nd, the PM Secretariat, Presidency and ISPR remained silent on the issue for the first few days. While the globe had their eyes fixated on Pakistan, there was no coherent message put forward. A haphazardly press release was put forward by MoFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) while the Prime Minister and the President refused to come in front of the camera. Similarly, ISPR did not issue a press release until the 5th of May. This did not resonate well with the people of Pakistan and allowed the global media to take charge of the media debate surrounding bin Laden and his adopted residency.
The lack of knowledge in communicating has also hindered public support for the Gilani Administration when they have passed historical and critical legislation. The 18th Amendment was a landmark introduction to the Constitution. The government was unable to put forward a strategic communications plan and therefore forfeited an opportunity to highlight their good governance. Other significant laws have also passed which included protection and empowerment of women rights, NFC Awards and Aghaz-e-Haqooq-e-Balochistan amongst others. These pieces of legislation have died a silent death.
When there is a disregard of the public domain; it gives rise to conspiracy theories, unanswered question and forces the subject of the crises to go on the defense. President Zardari may have genuinely suffered a minor heart attack, but today the news stories disprove that theory, because his spokespersons allowed themselves to be caught like a deer in headlights.
By remaining silent, the Government allows the conversation to be controlled and dictated to them rather than being lead by them. It is extremely important for the government and military to analytically view the media space and gauge their strengths and weaknesses. The ruling elite must learn how to utilize the media space.
Traditional and social media provide a comprehensive insight into the temperature of the political climate of the country. These outlets should not only be used to measure their own effectiveness in terms of governance and policy formation but also as a tool for strengthening democracy. It is time that the Government and Military become more transparent of their respective roles by communicating before it becomes a crisis. It would not only enhance their own credibility, but also showcase their achievements and enforce the public to be involved with their government.
Agha Haider Raza is a freelance journalist and can be reached via his Twitter handle @ahraza_