Carry on Minister!


Firdous Ashiq Awan

By Ghazala Akbar:

One has great sympathy and admiration for the indefatigable
Dr.Awan, the honourable minister for information as she exercises
her powerful vocal chords in defence of the indefensible or explain
the inexplicable to an increasingly querulous Pakistan.

The more I see of her, the more I wonder why, in a Parliamentary
Democracy, where theoretically every Minister from the Prime Minister
downwards, is answerable to Parliament and where, there exists the
principle of collective responsibility, why do we need a full-fledged Minister
to trumpet the government’s position and gloss over its failures?
Why can’t other Ministers including the PM, speak for themselves?
Why is there one central megaphone?

Traditionally,a Ministry for Information,( often appended with culture) is a
totalitarian concept. It is uncomfortably associated with propaganda,
thought-control and disinformation. It is the very antithesis of democracy,
which is bedrocked on openness and a free flow of information.

Barring India, any major democratic country today, does not have a specific
ministry devoted to information.That is not to say that Governments do not
have control over what is dissemimated or that there is no attempt on their part
to manipulate public opinion. They do. But they do so in subtle,
covert and clever
ways without the use of loudspeakers or ubiquitous Ministers of Information.

So how did we get saddled with one?

Historically, we inherited this Ministry from the colonial Government
of India which in
turn inherited it from the wartime cabinet of His Majesty’s Government
during the
Second World War. It was a ministerial department instituted
specifically for purposes
of publicity and press censorship. This was necessitated by the
circumstances of a war
in which the Fascist enemy considered propaganda as an instrument of
national policy.
( It was the infamous Dr.Goebbels who said that if you tell a lie big
enough, people
will eventually come to believe it! )

Once victory over Nazi Germany was achieved, the MoI was disbanded,
its functions
dispersed to other departments and its broadcasting arm to an
autonomous corporation,
the BBC. Not so in the newly-independent Dominions of the Indian sub-
continent. We
were quick to demolish statues and re- name roads in a bid to assert
our independent
statehood, but we took an instant liking to some unsavoury colonial
legacies, like a duck
to water. Censorship and information control was considered a divine
right for our rulers.

In Pakistan in particular, the MoI was gleefully seized upon and used
by successive
Governments both civilian and military to promote our ‘ Islamic ‘
ideology, gag the
Press, control information and generally be a mouthpiece of whoever
was in power.
Ayub Khan used it very effectively, and in the era of Zia ul Haq, it
reached its apogee.

This is the ministry that banned Faiz, Habib Jalib and even frowned on
Mirza Ghalib.
This is the ministry that forced female news readers to cover their
heads. Ironic thus
that the PPP that suffered so much at its hands should now use it for its own
political advantage.

My reservations about the efficacy and the role of the ministry is
further compounded
by a visit to its confused website.The whole page is an eclectic mix
of unrelated topics.
We have the Constitution of Pakistan, government structure, e-
governance plus self
help advice on how to register a company. How to obtain a fresh
passport, a driving
license. How to donate money to flood affectees. How to book tickets on- line!

Perhaps I am missing something here but if one wanted to book an air ticket on
PIA or Air Blue would you go to the website of the Ministry of Information and
Broadcasting, Government of Pakistan? The logic is astounding and escapes me!
Presumably if I wanted to start a TV station, and required a license I
would apply to
the Ministry of Tourism!

But I am being harsh. It is probably not the fault of the minister.
It is the bureaucratic mandarins of the ministry that are responsible.
It is they who have loaded the page with the minister’s profile, achievements,
press releases, photos and facebook page.
It is they who have forgotten to remove tenders for the auction of two Suzuki
cars going back to the year 2007.

The Minister as we know is extremely busy these days dealing with
uncouth journalists and private TV anchors who are demanding all
sorts of Commissions. It is a thankless and stressful job. But hers
is a virtuoso performance. She gives as good as she gets.
Forget Abu Saeed Sahaf of Saddam’s Iraq or Sushma Swaraj of the
Bharatiya Janta Party, this is the genuine article, the real thing.

And as one watches her mouthing inanities, or dropping pearls of wisdom, I say a
silent prayer and breathe a sigh of relief. I thank the Lord, the
President and the PM
for giving her the opportunity. Just imagine, if Rahman Malik were in
her place…!

Carry on Minister! You are doing a splendid job.

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