The media in Pakistan has always played a crucial role in calibrating the political trends and the messaging, working closely with the government or the political parties they owe allegiance to. However, in the last year or so and specifically the last six months, the Pakistani media has not only been in the limelight for having been unusually vocal and expressive, but has also taken sides to create a vicious and unhealthy atmosphere. This has led to a clear rift within the media space among those who are supporters of the Imran Khan government and those against him. The latter category though dominate the media space in Pakistan today.
As the pitch of rhetoric and counter rhetoric increased over the last few weeks one witnessed the media shredding all ethics and journalistic values while resorting to use of strong language and aggressive posturing in emphasizing their point of view. However, one found the government responding with angst dealing with the so called detractors with a strong hand. Handling of the media has been a weak spot for the Imran Khan government as it has failed to deal with the media tactfully, which in turn has resulted in creation of a strong anti-government lobby within the media land scape which the government will find challenging to deal with in these difficult times.
Soon after the formation of the Imran Khan government, the government invested significant resources on social media for publicizing pro-government narrative and to ensure a better outreach in the public domain. These platforms were used to unleash a tirade of rhetoric against the government’s opponents through a carefully calibrated mechanism which included intelligence collected on them and their activities and exposing them in the public space. For a while, they worked fine by way of creating a positive image of the government in spite of its poor performance. However, reacting to the government’s initiative, most political parties decided not to be left behind and the PTI, PML-N, PPP and others also upgraded their social media cells to counter PTI’s offensive narrative.
Meanwhile, in its eagerness to push the media agenda PTI placed Shehbaz Gill, Fayazul Hassan Chohan, Murad Saeed, Shibli Faraz and Fawad Chaudhary at the fore front while relegating to the rear some of the Party’s seasoned and mature politicians. Similar trend was witnessed among the other parties as well with people lacking media ethics but ability to strike hard using rough and aggressive language, coming to the fore. The PTI clearly raced ahead in this regard using government resources at its disposal. The PTI media cell got integrated into the Information Ministry receiving financial and expert support from the best talent the government could afford. Advice was also sought by the government from foreign experts in this regard.
While on one hand the Imran government started spending huge resources targeting opponents and indulging in character assassination of those opposed to the government including people in the media, on the other hand the office bearers of PTI social media team were elevated to senior government positions. This process was also repeated in the provinces over a period of time. Significantly, considering Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) is an important strategic area, considerable investment was made in KPK on the social media and conventional media front with a major portion of the 700 million PKR fund allocated for creating public awareness in tribal districts, being used for the purpose. These funds were diverted from the purpose for which they were intended and were used for recruiting youth from these districts in large numbers for generating social media trolls.
As far as mainstream media is concerned, Imran Khan tried to convert every newspaper and TV channel into his own entity or beholden to his government. Media houses, prominent journalists and television channels who refused to tow the government line found it difficult to survive and operate, with a number of popular and well known journalists losing their jobs. There have also been instances of some journalists being physically assaulted by so called ‘unknown’ elements. As the tables begin to turn, skeletons in Imran Khan’s cupboard seem to be rolling out. Imran Khan’s erstwhile confidants like Mohsin Baig have revealed as to how Imran Khan had issued orders to implicate Jang and Geo group owner Mir Shakilur Rehman and Dawn Group’s Hamid Haroon in various cases.
Imran Khan’s desire was to see every analyst become Shehbaz Gill, every columnist Mansoor Afaq and every anchor Fawad Chaudhary. Those who moulded themselves according to Imran’s wishes were rewarded and those who remained steadfast on their principles started facing difficulties. Some prominent and famous journalists who were sidelined from the media scene include Talat Hussain, Hamid Mir, Najam Sethi, Murtaza Solangi, Sana Bucha, Ambar Shamsi, Nusrat Javed among others. Some others continue to face harassment in the form of targeted trolling against them or vandalism, abduction or even instances of being shot at. Prominent journalists such as Mattiullah Jan, Asad Toor, Absar Alam Saleem Safi have been victims of such action.
The anti-government media has at the same time been able to identify relevant topics on which to target Imran Khan. For instance, they point to how the Prime Minister has been rewarding failed politicians with the ‘best performance’ award. Similarly, while PM has repeatedly been mentioning of the relevance of the ‘Riyasat-e-Madina’ (religious ministry) and its exceptional role, at the same time the ministry never made it to the list of top ten performing ministries nominated for appreciation certificates recently. If indeed Imran Khan was sincere and serious with `Riyasat-e-Madina’ and the issue of religion, the Ministry of Religion would have been on top of the list.
Several of Imran Khan’s supporters felt that the concept of rewarding the ministries should have been avoided at a time when most ministries have been virtually non performing. Infact, with the Foreign, Finance, Defence, Information and Religious ministries not figuring in the list of ‘best performers’, Imran khan has only exposed the government’s lack of performance. There has been outright criticism of the government on the grounds that if the Prime Minister himself lacks confidence in the performance of his primary ministries, how could the government deliver. It also raises questions on the Prime Minister’s performance in terms of the control and direction he caters to these ministries.
On the issue of the government’s harsh and often brutal attitude towards the media Nawaz Sharif mentioned in an interview on February 18 that this was the outcome of Imran Khan’s sentiments of vendetta and grudge against opponents. He mentioned that the Federal Investigative Agency should not be used by the government to settle such scores. He further mentioned that Imran Khan was trying to push Pakistan towards destruction and crushing his opponents ruthlessly in the process. However, Nawaz mentioned that Imran Khan would not succeed in his endeavour.
This situation has led to creation of necessary grounds for the opposition to target the government and go for the vote of no confidence playing on the above narrative. One of the crucial tests that Pakistan will face in the coming days is regarding the FATF and Pakistan’s efforts to get itself off the Grey list. Pakistani officials have been making every effort possible to impress on FATF member countries about its significant achievement in strengthening its financial security mechanisms. Numerous tours were undertaken to different countries and several prominent interlocutors linked to FATF, especially those with the World Bank and the IMF were engaged by the Pakistanis, but internal developments in the country create enough room for speculation of the manner in which Pakistan has addressed the issues raised by FATF.
During discussions with Saleem Safi on February 17, Mubasher Lucman said that he had information that FATF is going to place Pakistan in the black list downgrading it from the grey list because of the Pakistani government’s agreement with Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan and for not handing over Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar to India. Safi also mentioned that as per his information the lack of media freedom was another issue which had caught the attention of the FATF members and this too could have an impact on the FATF decision. There is no doubt that the performance and image of the Imran Khan government has dropped several folds in the last few years with the last few months being the worst in terms of delivery and squeezing of the media. The opposition thus has all the necessary wherewithal to unseat the government if they play their cards well.