The curious case of the spokesperson
Most news-watchers were shocked to see Dr. Farrukh Saleem the government’s presumptive spokesman on the economy explicating the doom and gloom scenario of our present economic plight on a private news channel. Within hours the enigmatic information Fawad Chaudhry claimed through a tweet that he was in fact a self-styled spokesman, as the government had never notified his appointment.
This is confusion worst confounded that has become a hallmark of the PTI government. Back in early October last year the same Fawad Chaudhry through a tweet had informed us that the ministry of information was pleased to announce that Saleem would be the government’s spokesman on the economy.
Since the tweet was never withdrawn in the eyes of the public and the media the hapless doctor was considered to be the one responsible for explaining the government’s economic policies. Now after his critical and frank appraisal of the economy the information minister claims that the spokesman was never appointed in the first place. However Farrukh has clarified that till end December he was attending meetings relating to the economy in his official capacity.
The erstwhile spokesperson in the said interview quite shockingly expressed his discontent about the manner in which the economy was being handled. Adding insult to injury he claimed, “The government is not curing the disease but hiding the symptoms.”
Judging by the dismal performance of the finance minister Asad Umar’s economic team Doctor Saleem did not make any new revelations. However coming from an ostensible spokesperson it was a bit surprising.
The Farrukh case is more akin to: too many cooks spoiling the broth, especially in the case of media handling as well as the economy.
There are a number of people advising the prime minister on how to handle the media. Fawad Chaudhry the federal information minister heads the behemoth of a ministry and its apparatchiks. Iftikhar Durrani is the special assistant to the prime minster on media. Television boss Yousaf Baig Mirza is another special assistant to the prime minister on media. And so is Tahir Khan who owns a media empire including an advertising agency, a media-buying house and news and entertainment channels.
These gentlemen meet the prime minister every other day and advise him on affairs relating to the media. They have come up with the novel idea of forming a Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA).
The avowed aim of the proposed body is to have a one-window operation for electronic, print and social media. But critics contend that its real purpose is to control the media in the name of regulation.
The print media has always maintained that there should be no special laws but ordinary laws for the press. This freedom has been achieved through protracted struggle of media organizations and journalists’ bodies.
Judging by the dismal performance of the finance minister Asad Umar’s economic team Dr. Saleem did not make any new revelations.
Ironically the Press Council of Pakistan a self-regulatory body for the print media created through hard won consensus amongst the stakeholders. The Press Council itself, headed by a retired judge of the high court has rejected the idea of PMRA terming it as anathema to the very concept of a free press.
Somehow Khan’s media advisors have been able to convince him that the print media is dead and television is soon to follow. The future is digital. Hence by slashing advertising budgets the government practically wants the print media to wither on the vine. Or perhaps a philosophical understanding of a free press in a democracy is completely lacking?
The federal information minister many a times lecturing media owners brazenly asks the question that media is a private business why should the government subsidize it through advertisements. Quite true but why the same principle does not apply to the textile industry and sugar mills? Textile mills owners have failed to increase the export of their produce despite government doles in the form of export subsidies and cheap gas and electricity.
Press freedom is not only threatened owing to financial constraints and the government’s policies but by exogenous factors as well. A rather not so silent hand is exercising its control over the media through its vast resources and massive clout.
Newspaper organizations during the past year or so have complained of their distribution being curtailed in cantonment and DHA (Defence Housing Authority) areas. The justification given is why should subversive material be allowed to enter these areas?
Another method to punish erring publications is to deprive them of DHA advertisements that have become a substantial chunk of shrinking advertisements budgets of the media. Red lines have been clearly drawn.
As a result erring newspapers are either forced to tow the line or incur the wrath of powers that be. That is why many ‘undesirable’ journalists have been made to leave and critical columns simply not carried. Only a few media organizations take the risk of deviating from the officially certified truth.
As for the curious case of Dr. Farrukh Saleem it is clearly symptomatic of the whole economic team of the government being in disarray. There are many baying for the finance minister’s blood.
Not that Asad Umar is doing a great job or anybody is preventing him to deliver. But many a people around the chief executive think that he should be shown the door.
These advisors pulling in opposite directions along with rumours that the finance minister will soon be made to leave have created an inertia that is not helping matters. Some have been advising the prime minister not to go for an IMF bailout; others want him to wait, while another advisor reportedly claims that he can get a favorable IMF package through his personal clout.
As a result erring newspapers are either forced to tow the line or incur the wrath of powers that be.
Khan in his first four months has failed to give a clear direction. If he has really lost confidence in his finance minister he should simply let him go.
Unnecessary fronts have been opened. For example why the newfound penchant to fix the media?
Instead an all-out effort should be made to revive the economy and fix governance issues with a singular determination. Farrukh Saleem whether spokesman or not spoke the truth. The Khan should also wake up and smell the coffee.