COMMENTARY
 
Pakistan’s Information Age crisis
Weekly Pulse
April 13-19, 2007
Who is the spokesman of this government? Is it is the Federal Information Minister, or State Information Minister? Is it the Railways Minister, the former Information Minister? Is it the Director-General ISPR? Who articulates what the President and the Prime Minister say or do, or what the government says or does, or intends to do?

Whether it is the current judicial crisis, or speculations regarding pre-electoral deals of the present leadership, there is hardly any one government voice. Everybody in the higher echelons of governance is free to say whatever, causing utter confusion in media circles and public mind about what the government policy actually is.

In issuing contradictory statements on key national issues, especially amid a mounting political crisis, ministers compete with each other, more than often making contradictory remarks about governmental policy. There are so many centers of government information that journalists find it extremely difficult to locate the most authentic source of government policy in a time of crisis.

The cause of information anarchy facing the present regime is general, requiring urgent over-hauling of the entire fabric of its Information Group, particularly its de-politicization and expansion on purely professional lines.

Over-burdened Officers

In not-in-so-distant a past, if you had asked an Information Officer of the Government of Pakistan about job satisfaction, the answer most probably would be yes. Now the case is most certainly the other way round. The burden imposed by mushrooming growth of the media, especially satellite TV, and the ever expanding government and activities of its leaders is such that you can hardly locate an official of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting who is currently not overworked or having sleepless nights.

Hardly a day passes without a major incident occurring in Pakistan or its surroundings. The range of critical issues facing the country has expanded to Talibanization, terrorism and the like. In such circumstances, the task of articulating government policies effectively and credibly becomes all the more important. So many cable news channels and newspapers have now sprung up that, in the absence of a highly skilled and motivated government media team, the probability of even a good government policy being publicly perceived as bad has increased fundamentally.

Having myself been associated for a year in consultative capacity back in 1997-98, I know what it entails to articulate the government stance especially during a crisis. For instance, in the aftermath of India’s nuclear tests in May 1998; I hardly remember taking a good night sleep during the 17 days before we gave our own nuclear response. This was the time when almost the entire world had its eyes upon Pakistan, and we were also dealing with a relatively more hostile international and regional media. In such circumstances, it was quite an effort to project a national policy, which was just and fair from our point of view.

Even at that time, I felt as to how limited the government’s information machinery was. What to speak of now when we see such a gigantic growth in media, emergence of volatile issues such as terrorism, and a leadership whose proactive engagement is not just national in scope and reach! Based upon my personal experience and interaction with old colleagues at the Information Ministry, I write this article to underscore the main reasons currently plaguing the government’s information and publicity task.

Mushrooming Media

Let me start from the most important one: When the Information Service was created in 1964, the Federal Government only had well over a dozen ministries, each headed by a minister, and a handful of government departments and corporations. There were only a few English and Urdu newspapers and only one TV channel, the PTV. The Information Service was structured, and its budget was allocated, according to that requirement.

Now the situation is radically different. There are around 60 ministries, each having a federal and a state minister. There are over 100 government departments and corporations. There are so many newspapers and magazines in Urdu, English and vernacular languages. More are on the way. Nearly 20 private satellite TV channels are already broadcasting, and more are similarly on the way.

In the past, the President, and the Prime Minister and his few ministers would hold fewer public activities. Now hardly a day goes by when the President, the Prime Minister, and the federal and state ministers are not attending a public event—and all of them want the government’s information machinery to deliver the maximum.

With the mushrooming growth of print and electronic media in the country, the Information Officers are busy day and night answering media queries in a country which in itself and whose neighborhood qualifies to be the world’s largest news generating source. Is it not then an irony that, under existing rules, the government’s press officers are not even paid for mobile phones, which are still considered as luxury? Were the issue limited only to resources, it could be tackled by modifying some rules to enable the Information Group cope up with the technological requirements of the Information Age.

Old Structure, New Requirement

The real issue, however, is structural. The key question is how can the same structure created for a different, limited requirement in the past meet the present, ever expanding requirement? Or, simply put, how can an old structure deliver under a new requirement?

It is physically or humanly impossible for the Information Group at its present strength to manage the media campaign of an expanded government and its proactive leadership amid mushrooming growth of the print and electronic media, and unending list of news generating domestic and external developments requiring instant articulation of government policies.

Part of the problem why the government more often fails to project its policies and improve national image is this culture of experimenting with new ideas, rather than building upon the existing ones. Despite the fact that the Information Service has been in existence for the past 43 years; successive governments, instead of improving it, have preferred to try new initiatives ideas. Each time, such initiatives came to naught, accomplishing nothing except undermining the performance of the Information personnel.

One such attempt in 70’s failed, when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs grabbed External Publicity wing of the Information Ministry but failed miserably to handle it within a couple of years. Then, in 90’s, the idea of shutting the Ministry was floated, despite the fact that its primary function is that of providing administrative and financial support to information officers.

At Committee created by him—headed by an Additional Secretary of the PM Secretariat and represented by Joint Secretaries from the Ministries of Establishment, Finance, Foreign Affairs and the Cabinet Division—is tasked to reform the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. As all government committees do, delay or ignore the real issue, this one should be no different if it does not have a single official of the Ministry being reformed is included in this Committee: To it, traditional budgetary concerns may appear to be far more important than reforming the state’s information expanding the Ministry according to newer needs.

Flawed Corporatism

Experimentation continues. The newest idea on the horizon—being floated by the Services Reforms Commission, headed by former Governor of the State Bank Ishrat Hussain—is transforming the Ministry into a corporate house.

If corporatism was the solution to projecting government’s policies or improving the country’s image more effectively, then why countries like the United States, Britain and even India have not tried it?

All of these countries have relevant information departments or services, led by professionally trained information officers. The United States has its US Information Service. The British government has a Central Office of Information. Instead of politically appointed ministers, these departments are led by advisors or secretaries, who are professionally trained in the field of information and broadcasting.

India’s case should be more relevant for us, in terms of lesson in publicity of government policy and national image. None of these countries has adopted the corporate solution. So is the case with countries in the developed or developing world running relatively successful public institutions of information and publicity!

Obviously, Pakistan can’t be an exception to a widely practiced international norm. Yet, in our case, the situation has come to such a pass that autonomous public departments and corporations have already adopted the corporate way, resulting in publicity disaster in most cases.

Even the Prime Minister, who himself hails from the corporate world, has adopted the same approach by hiring on hefty salaries attractive female media managers, who do not have an idea how the government functions and what its policies are. The presumption is that, just by having some good looking females around, you can promote the government policies or improve the nation’s image! Consequently, each time, the government has faced a policy dilemma; instead of tackling it effectively, the PM’s “soft faces” have ended up making a mess of the situation—a mess that is again left for the already stressed Information Officers to handle.

Due to such flawed experimentation, past and current, no serious attention is paid to improving the existing governmental information structure. This urgent issue is delayed or ignored on one trivial pretext or another. Consequently, day-by-day, the situation is deteriorating.

Past Restructuring

It is not that, since its establishment in 1964, the Information Service has not undergone any structural reformation or administrative reorganization. Indeed, it has. However, the point which I want to make is that its current strength and capacity is far outweighed by what is required of it in an Information Age and at a time when the government has also expanded gigantically.

When the Information Service was created in January 1964, the total strength of its personnel, recruited from other Civil Services and Radio Pakistan, was 140. In 1977, it was renamed as Information Group, with the cadre strength of 170 besides 20 per cent DTL (deputation, training and leave) reserve, making the total strength 208. In 1991, the cadre strength increased to 197 with 20 per cent DTL making the total strength 236. In 1993, the cadre strength was reduced to 190. In 2001, it further came down to 181, after a Re-structuring Committee headed by Lt Gen Javed Hamid abolished some foreign posts.

Since the decision contravened the spirit of the Information Age, which actually requires existing foreign posts be expanded and newer one be created, some of the abolished posts have been revived, but only after persistent pleas by Information Ministry officials. Currently, the cadre strength stands at 185, with 20 per cent DTL making the total figure as 222.

The way both the media and the government have expanded over time, especially in recent years, the strength of the Information Group, of both cadre and its DTL proportion, needs to expand urgently. The grim reality, however, is that due to lopsided cadre strength, promotions in the Information Group are either rare or take unduly longer duration as compared to other civil services. The Ministry also fails to meet the government’s growing deputation requirements due to rampant growth in the mass media.

In 2002, President Musharraf did, indeed, create a Joint Committee—headed by the then Federal Information Minister and represented by Secretaries of the Establishment Division, Finance and Information—but most of what it recommended remains unimplemented. Among its recommendations were upgrading some existing senior posts, such as the Press Counselors at crucial missions such as Washington, Beijing, Tokyo and Jeddah, and creating some new ones, such as for internal and external publicity, and career planning. Were these recommendations implemented, the cadre strength would have increased to 252, including 25 per cent DTL portion.

Instead of implementing such crucial recommendations, which could have considerably overcome the prevailing crisis of information in the government, what the PM Secretariat has simply done is to appoint another committee, which, as I stated above, has no representation from the Information Group whom it is tasked to reform. It is, therefore, natural on its part not to comprehend the gravity of the crisis facing the government’s chief information branch. The burden imposed by the Information Age is such that even an expansion in the cadre strength up to 252 and a 25 per cent share of DTL will not be enough.

What is Needed

Obviously, there are government policies, which are indefensible no matter what reforms you take. However, the issue here is that even those policies which should be in extreme national interest or in the longer run interest of the people are not credibly articulated and projected. Especially when a government politicizes its information service—rather than letting it do its professional job of representing the government’s point of view—there is greater probability even a good government policy being perceived publicly as bad.

A pertinent example of politicization of the information service is the role of the Press Information Department. It distributes government advertisements among news private news organizations. In return, the news organizations project governmental policies. This is a simple but precarious relationship, based upon more-advertisements-more-publicity and vice versa proposition. In most cases, political personalities at the helm of state affairs get projected at state expense, rather than policies of the government, or the image of its institutions.

More importantly, the professionally trained officers of the Information Group—instead of doing a job for which they are trained—are kept engaged in a non-professional, dirty task day in and day out. De-politicization of the government’s Information leg requires that like Germany the government published an official register carrying all advertisements of government and semi-government departments.

De-politicization of the Information Service also requires that—instead of having so many competing centres of information—doing nothing but jealously guarding their domains and creating public confusion about government policies through contradictory statements—there should be one principal information spokesman of the government. Like the spokesman of the Foreign Office, why can’t there be just one spokesman of the government, chosen from among the best in the Information Group? The above-cited examples from the United States, Great Britain and India provide a valid lesson for the purpose.

Apart from de-politicization of the Information Service, a major requirement of the present Information Age—whereby Pakistan itself is undergoing media revolution, amid an expanding range of activities of government leaders in response to a similar expansion of critical issue areas—is to re-structure the Information Ministry according to current requirements.

The French model may be more appropriate for the purpose. The French have an Information Department at the Centre, and its reach is at the district level. An Information Officer is attached to each Mayor’s office. Whenever a President makes a policy announcement, it is posted on the web page of the Information Department, and all of the information offices—from central to provincial to district levels—instantly know what the governmental policies are on critical issues as soon as they arise. This leaves no chance for public confusion to arise on any state matter.

As long as the operational scope of the Ministry of Information does not expand to provincial and district levels, and as long as its existing structure remains negligible as compared to the requirements of Information Age—in terms of resource base and professional capacity—the government’s current crisis of information will only aggravate with more embarrassing consequences in future.