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Shibli Faraz: Pakistan’s Information Minister Speaks

Shibli Faraz candidly admits the challenges faced by Pakistan's Information Minister in today’s multi-dimensional media landscape– but in this frank discussion he also outlines the vision of Imran Khan govt to change Ministry of Information and to bring it into 21st century!

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Most of the world no longer has an Information Minister, other than a few countries such as Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, etc., what exactly is your role?

Shibli Faraz: The primary role of an Information Minister or Information Ministry is to reach out to the public. To highlight and project the policies of the government and its narrative, and also to be a facilitator for the journalistic community, be it electronic, social or the print media. So our role is mostly restricted to that.

You have been in the job for almost eight months. What are some of the key challenges that you have faced?

Shibli Faraz: One of the biggest challenges has been that this is a very taxing job. It is a 24-hour job. So many things are happening at the government level, the opposition level and internationally.

Secondly, what I found, even without having an information or media background is, that our ministry was running on a very old model, that is to say in the times when there were only two, three channels or even one channel, PTV. There were fewer newspapers, and there was no social media. The electronic media was not as fast-moving as it is now, unfortunately, the information ministry has not kept pace with the times.

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This is my biggest challenge. To bring the information ministry in line with the current requirements of the changing times and make it more central. We need to pool our information and disseminate all the relevant information at a given time, make an organized effort to address all the issues that the people are facing and the media is trying to project, and explain what the government is trying to do.

At the same time, at the technological level, you know Radio Pakistan and PTV are the two arms of the information ministry, but unfortunately, they too are way behind. They are still running on the analogue system, and we want to move onto the digital system, that is underway. At the same time both PTV and Radio Pakistan are overstaffed.

I want to go into the reform of the PTV, but first if we take the private channels that you have just mentioned, in the last 20 years we have seen the flourishing of private media, we have around 33 news channel, and close to around 100 entertainment channels. How has that directly impacted your role and challenges you face in obtaining information and getting the government’s narrative out there? How have you been able to manage that?

Shibli Faraz: It has been a difficult task, but the private media also thrives on information that is disseminated by the government. One is information that is given by the opposition and other sources, and the other is what the government shares – as that has greater authenticity. We have tried to keep pace with the dissemination of the information.

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However, I think that the major two areas of improvement that we are working on are the Radio side, which is highly underrated and underutilized. We are trying to resolve our HR issues. We have overstaffing.

 

The previous government inducted many people that were on contracts, and not much was happening. We are talking about 4,000-5,000 people, and then pensions are a huge problem as these people need to be paid. At the same time technology is outdated, the transmitters, etc.

The paradigm they are working in needs to be changed, so we are working very hard as to how to bring the technology, reduce the number of people involved, and give it a more specialized and a more focused projection as far the Government of Pakistan’s narrative is concerned.

When you say a more focused projection, what do you have in mind?

Shibli Faraz: I mean it should be precise, very genuine, authentic information. PTV’s work has been a relic of the past. Their management, their way of addressing things, their programs, their formats, and their technology is all outdated.

So it is a considerable challenge, but I am really relishing that moment when we will bring PTV as one of the best channels, and in fact, it will be a very intimidating experience for the private channels.

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What timeline have you set for that?

Shibli Faraz: In the next six months, we should be getting very near to our goal.

Is the issue with PTV not that it cannot say anything other than the government’s point of view?

Shibli Faraz: There are two issues. One, when we talk about HR, they were mostly political appointees. We plan to put fewer but professional people who specialize in their respective fields. Now, when we achieve that, then we plan to entertain all sorts of news.

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Our manifesto says that we want PTV to be on the BBC model. That itself will give it a lot of independence, because you know when the government is financing and owns a particular organization, it is a bit natural that the management tends to provide more space to the government than to the opposition, but we plan to make it more egalitarian. We are putting in professional people, known to have credibility in this TV business.

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Your government has been in power now for almost two years, and you have highlighted the changes that you wish you make in PTV but can you also cite other changes and reforms that you have made or intend to do so?

Shibli Faraz: On the legislative side, we are first trying to protect the journalists. We are introducing a bill that will protect the journalist, and safeguard their welfare because journalism is a very challenging task in any country, but especially in Pakistan.

It is high paying only to those that achieve prominence but the rank and file struggle on the financial side. So through legislation, we plan to create a system through which there is welfare, insurance, health and personal security, etc.

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On the other side, our main challenge, as far as the core ministry is concerned, we want to change the way that the information ministry looks at the world. We want to increase the outreach of the Information Ministry.

We want it not only looking inside but also looking outside. It must have an international presence; it must be part of the value chain of the information world. Pakistan’s narrative must be heard outside and in order to achieve that we need to look both at the technological side, as well as the content side.

We have organized a very professional team, and I think we are going to roll out a strategic communication cell. It is going to be a premium wing that coordinates but at the same time manages the information. It has a bit of everything; PTV local and international. We have tried to bring those two together, and there will be special people who will be managing the outside world, and there will be special people who will be working inside Pakistan.

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The other thing that we are trying to do is that it usually is the government telling people what the government is doing. We now want to make this a two-way communication. We want the people to be telling us their stories. Their voice should also be built in our narrative and what they expect and what they think.

How are you going to enable that?

Shibli Faraz: We are going to create mechanisms, and, once it is in place, you will see it on the screen, you will see it in the papers.

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I want to pick up the external narrative that you mentioned as a majority of people will say in Pakistan that the country has a very weak narrative externally, often a very negative narrative. You have an information ministry external wing and you have media attaches in every single embassy around the world, yet we do not see enough on branding Pakistan. What is it specifically that your government is thinking and how can you improve this?

Shibli Faraz: These are systemic issues which we are trying to address. Information Ministry is a very laid back kind of ministry and with the staff and the offices, with due respect to all those that are sitting around me, but the fact is that you know they have not been given the due importance that they deserve.

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So the first thing is that you need the right people for the right job. If wings of the information ministry are not doing what they are meant for, it means they have to be changed in terms of the staff, in terms of the mechanisms. It depends on the leadership, what the Prime Minister wants, the vision that he gives to the Information Minister, who puts it in place.

Pakistan, despite having so many success stories, having so many good things to talk about, we have not been able to sell our story out there. The COVID response, for example, is an international success, it is by no means a minor achievement.

Similarly, we need to sell our tourism industry we have some of the best places in the world, to show people. Pakistan has unfortunately not done, be it our external wings, be it our embassies; they have not done what they are paid for. That is a matter of great concern, but I am very particular about it. People who are there, who are not doing their job, especially for the country that is not going to be tolerated.

You are a Spanish speaker yourself, and you understand the importance of knowing another knowledge. The vast majority of the people that go in your media attaches to explain Pakistan to their local countries whether if it is in any of the Arab countries, China, a hugely important country for us, or in Spain or any of the Spanish speaking countries do not speak the local language. How will you ensure that these people do speak the local language when they go out?

Shibli Faraz: If I speak Spanish its thanks to my organization, the bank that I used to work for. At a very young age, I was 24 years old, and I was sent to Spain, and that is where I learned the language, and then I became an asset as far the human resource in Spanish speaking countries was concerned.

So this is what we plan to do mainly with all of the officers, especially in important areas, we have to send people that are right for that particular culture. People that go should be flexible and should be able to adapt to the environment. At the same time, they have to speak the language. For that, we have started training courses for different languages. Some of our officers are already doing that. French, Chinese Spanish, Arabic, and Persian.

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Is this a course that your government has specifically introduced, or has this always been in place?

Shibli Faraz: No, it has not been in place. Had it been in place, we would not be having this situation that you described.

You mentioned the financial constraints and how you are going to help journalists. One big issue facing Pakistani media is that their revenue model is commercial advertisement based and the government traditionally played a large part in that. Now PTI, I know stated from the outset that it would reduce government ads because you did not consider them value for money, but that has hit the channels hard. Journalists have been laid off, salaries have been cut. So what is the model that you are thinking for this industry?

Shibli Faraz: Look, as you rightly said that when a media is supported by the government, it cannot afford to remain unbiased or they are going to use different tactics to extract more advertisements from the government.

I think that the media houses have also realized that they cannot solely be dependent on the official media, especially when your resources are limited, the government’s resources, you cannot please everybody. So that is why we have to come up with something whereby the media houses develop commercial broadness.

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In 2005, there was talk of a Direct-To-Home (DTH) model. We have not subsequently heard about that. It will allow media channels to be directly paid for its content. Is that something that you are thinking about or playing with?

Shibli Faraz: It has a few complications technologically. I think that DTH is not the thing, but we are looking at it. We have issued three licenses. One has been already given, but we have also had the problems with people in the high level of government, due to conflict of interest. They have been trying to push things in a certain way. That has hit snags.

Is this the current government that you are talking about?

Shibli Faraz: No, no, I am talking about the previous government. I think the media has to come up with its own models because what has happened is that based on the government advertisements, they hired staff and premises, etc. and their model was not financially independent, not very competitive that way. I think we also have to come up with ideas where we can both accommodate each other and yet retain independence.

I want to come to the real elephant in the room, which is social media. Social media companies like Google, Facebook, YouTube, these are trillion-dollar companies, are becoming the main agenda setting and narrative shaping, all across the world. How is that impacting your ministry?

Shibli Faraz: Yes, it is a big challenge; not only is it a big challenge for us, but it is also a big challenge for many governments around the world. Obviously, those that are owning it they have the power to play with information that they have.

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Now in Pakistan, we have a particular cultural setting, we have a certain religious segment of the society, they are part of this country, you know part of the mosaic, so we cannot say that we do not care about them. We will not follow anybody. We should not follow let’s say, other countries we have our own realities and our own ways of doing things.

But the other reality is that you cannot become a banning culture right? Four years, YouTube was banned in this country, from 2012 to 2016. In those four years’ thousands of jobs that could have been created, technical knowledge and creativity that could have been enabled, was all dissipated, whereas India went far ahead of Pakistan, I mean this is the reality we have to take account of as well.

You are talking to a person that has been in many countries, lived in many countries. I have not stayed there. I have lived there, and I have experienced different cultures.

So, given your exposure, you should bring a vision, what is your vision?

Shibli Faraz: My vision remains that of our Prime Minister. Our Prime Minister also has had international exposure; he was an international celebrity. We think, and I always firmly believe in the fact that it is good to be progressive, it is good to be forward-looking, but at the same time, our most significant strength is our culture, our traditions.

We cannot sacrifice that, we have a particular way of life, we have a specific family system, so the content is significant. So you can see why YouTube was banned, as it directly hit a very important segment of the Pakistani population. So people are very touchy about.

But this was one program, surely we have to make a policy to account for that rather than outright banning?

Shibli Faraz: We do not believe in banning wholesale; we want to create a system whereby we can stop that content which is against our cultural norms, against our religion, against our societal values.

So how far are you along that line of creating that system?

Shibli Faraz: You know, again technology comes in. We are in touch with PEMRA, that is the regulator, and last week also I had a meeting with them. We do not want to project an image where we are seen as people who believe in banning things and stopping things.

Again, this a matter of how you express yourself and how you tell the world that these are the issues we are facing. We have not been able to tell our side of the story, and the image has become that we believe in banning.

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Actually, it is not that we have done something to stop something. We have not been able to create ways as to how we retain their presence at the same time we cannot allow a certain type of content to disturb our social fabric. So basically this is the challenge that we are working on.

I think that very soon, in another six months we will have a very clear policy as to how, in fact, we would like that all of the social media companies to be part of Pakistan, but we do not want to pay any price for that. We do not want to sacrifice our cultural values, our systems, our belief system, etc. We are going to guard that.

Information Minister Speaks

Is there any move to bring headquarters of these social media giants in Pakistan? Where are we on that?

Shibli Faraz: I would love to have them, but I must add there that we have seen that there are different benchmarks, methods, or double standards if I may say, used in the international community, for example on issues related to the holocaust, issues related to Zionism, and Kashmir, etc.

There is a very strict implementation, but on our red lines no one cares. We should respect everybody. We do not like to disrespect anybody, for the Jews, our religion recognizes them. We are not a discriminatory society, but we also react if someone tries to put us down, our culture, our history, our religion, says something against it, so obviously, people are sensitive.

Is the solution to bring the headquarters of these social media firms to Pakistan?

Shibli Faraz: No, this is not the solution, but if they wish to have their offices here, we will welcome them, because you know we would have foreign investment. It is always good to have international companies that have a global footprint so we would welcome them. But what I am saying is that it is also very important to agree on the rules of the game and if that is done, and is done very professionally and in the right manner, anybody can come, YouTube, etc. We would like to have them.

But we also have to understand that, and this has become cliché in the recent few months, but we are going through hybrid warfare, fifth generation warfare. Now, this is what is happening because the objective, of course, is to create panic or despondency in the society and then subsequently and you know it has no boundaries.

So we are very concerned about that because we see what is going on in our country. There are a few countries that do not want to see Pakistan as a stable country, economically stable or politically stable, and they will fan ethnic, or religious sectarianism to achieve that. We have to guard ourselves.

We have a belligerent neighbour, and on the other side, we have Afghanistan that is suffering guerrilla warfare for 40 years. Our setting is not typical; it is not like any country in South-America or any country in Europe. We have a unique geography, and we have unique problems.

How do you address the concerns that the US ambassador designated for Pakistan, William Todd, expressed in his hearing that there a lot of restrictions on the media in Pakistan.

Shibli Faraz: I think that this is probably due to a lack of understanding. I believe that in Pakistan, the media is very independent, you can see that people from abusing us, abusing the government, newspapers writing against the government and everybody is free, but at the same time there are sometimes cases where there has been some issue, but I think that by and large, Pakistan’s journalists are very protected.

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There is no censorship such as we had in the times of Zia-ul-Haq. Today, having so many multiple platforms of information and options available to a journalist that it is almost impossible to try and regulate or control the content of their writings or what they say. So I think that this is an exaggerated point of view, and when he comes here, he is going to learn himself also, and we are also going to explain what the facts are.

Information Minister Speaks

On a personal note, I would like to ask you that you are the son of Ahmad Faraz, a renowned poet and intellectual who believed in the freedom of expression and you became the regulator of information. How did this journey happen?

Shibli Faraz: I became the facilitator of information rather than the regulator because the regulator is PEMRA as I said. No, it is a job. My father was an independent person, and I am under party discipline, and being a minister, I have this responsibility not only to obviously guarding my thinking but at the same time I have to work for my country, and that can be at times selecting in terms of facilitation of information.

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