PTI Govt and the beleaguered media

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By Arif Nizami
Prime Minister Imran Khan is perhaps making a somewhat desperate last minute attempt to escape the gauntlet of the IMF (International Monetary Fund). In his interaction with media owners on Friday (October 19), discussion was mainly focused on problems faced by the print and electronic media. However he suddenly sprung a surprise by bowling a googly from nowhere, revealing that we may not need an IMF bailout after all.

After hemming and hawing for almost six weeks since the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf) government had assumed power, Finance Minister Asad Umar rather sheepishly announced the inevitable: Pakistan had formally approached the IMF for a $7.5 billion loan package.

According to the Khan Islamabad had received positive signals from friendly countries during his consultations for help. After returning virtually empty handed from Saudi Arabia only recently, he is again going to Riyadh ostensibly to attend a very high profile investment conference.

It is another matter that the Future Investment Initiative Conference (FIIC) is the brainchild of ambitious but highly controversial heir apparent to the Saudi throne prince Mohammad bin Salman (more popularly known as MBS). The 33-year-old prince is being perceived as the man behind the mysterious disappearance of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi from Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Riyadh has finally admitted what most of the world already believed: Khashoggi was indeed killed inside the Istanbul consulate.

Many international figures have pulled out from the high-profile conference dubbed as the Davos of the desert. They include the US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, UK Trade Secretary Liam Fox, IMF Managing Director Christine Legarde and the Dutch and French finance ministers. Several other politicians and business leaders have also decided to stay away.

Obviously if the prime minister has decided to attend an investment moot whose invitees in the first place are mostly at the level of heads of IFIs (international finance institutions), business and finance leaders and finance ministers, there must be a cogent reason behind it.

He must have been assured that like in the past, Riyadh is willing to park some of its money in Pakistan’s State Bank to shore up Islamabad’s empty coffers.

Unless some understanding has already been reached the prince, busy in the conference, would have little time to attend to Islamabad’s specific needs. In any case Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry had revealed after the prime minister’s earlier visit to Riyadh that it was impossible for Islamabad to agree to their host’s preconditions.

Certainly there is a change of heart somewhere, in Islamabad’s stance or that of Riyadh. The prime minister is also due to visit Beijing early next month. Apparently China loaned $2 billion to Pakistan during the caretaker government’s stint.

But there is a lot to talk about with Beijing apart from fresh infusion of capital. According to the latest SBP (State Bank of Pakistan) report, China in the first quarter of fiscal year 2018-19 made up 64pc of the foreign direct investment (FDI). However, in comparison to the same period during the last fiscal year, Chinese FDI has declined by 43pc in the first quarter.

Since the induction of the new government there has been an unnecessary and mostly avoidable controversy about CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor), largely engendered by public statements of some of the senior members of the cabinet.

Admittedly, the slowdown in Chinese investment started even before the present government had taken charge. However it is for the prime minster to stem the rot and clear the air on CPEC with the Chinese leadership.

After all efforts of the government to avoid the inevitable the IMF bailout will perhaps still be necessary. But it will be good in the long run to restructure the economy, accepting some of the tough condtionalites.

The prime minister in his interaction with media persons again came out hard on the opposition. The same day the incarcerated leader of the opposition Shahbaz Sharif — allowed to attend the National Assembly session by the speaker — had severely lambasted the government. He alleged that there was a nexus the between NAB (National Accountability Bureau) and the PTI government.

The Khan was commended for airing live the leader of the opposition’s speech on state television — something unheard of in the past. He lambasted the opposition, terming all of them as thieves who will eventually land up in jail. Perhaps the prime minister had not properly thought through his remarks. A parliament sans the opposition would ultimately lead to a one-party state.

Hopefully, ultimately that is not his goal. But this is already happening in some south Asian countries. Bangladesh Prime Minister Hasina Wajid has virtually eliminated opposition parties and has successfully muzzled the press. She is virtually assured a win in the next elections.

Nonetheless the prime minister assured the media that he believed in a free and unshackled press, adding that how could he not: the PTI government was elected thanks to the support of the media. This is somewhat true. But the media is facing unprecedented threats from various quarters. There has been a spate of killings of independent journalists in the past few weeks.

Pakistan is not the safest of places for journalists. Some of the difficulties being faced by media houses in terms of their distribution being stopped in DHA and cantonment areas and multifarious pressures to self-censor content were taken up with the director general ISPR, Major General Asif Ghafoor, in an earlier meeting of media owners with him.

The DG ISPR was very accommodating, assuring the owners and publishers that such complaints will be addressed and removed. The distribution of some of the newspapers erstwhile banned from the DHAs and cantonments was immediately restored as a result of the meeting.

Despite the assurances given by the prime minister the information minister, while briefing the Senate Standing committee on information and broadcasting the very next day pulled a rabbit out of his hat. To the utter surprise of media stakeholders he announced a broad outline of the newly proposed Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA) to oversee print, electronic and social media under one law. The proposed law, if passed by the parliament, will be considered arbitrary and draconian by the journalists as well as editors bodies.

There was some talk in the meeting with the prime minister about the traditional media not being given its due importance by the government. Of course the culprit was the information minister who on many occasions had repeated that the future (in fact present) was the Internet, the web and social media.

Newspapers all over the world with few exceptions are facing declining circulations and advertisement revenues. Traditional television is not far behind. The Khan also quite candidly stated that the hay days of unfettered government advertisements to build a personality cult of those in power would never ever return. Certainly the old media in Pakistan will have to reinvent itself under the fast changing environment.

(The writer is veteran journalist and Editor, Pakistan Today. He can be contacted at arifn51@hotmail.com.)