A CLOSE friend of a PPP prime minister during the 2008-2013 term says he once told the latter that the press was inundated with critical stories about him and his government. Shouldn’t the prime minister do something, he asked. The prime minister chortled and dismissed the concern by saying that coverage in itself was a good thing; one shouldn’t worry about it being good or bad.
In some ways, the anecdote can describe the five years of PPP rule at the centre post-2008. In sharp contrast to the PML-N and the PTI, the PPP accepted the media’s critical and harsh coverage with considerable generosity. Few clarifications used to be sent to newspapers, and channels too faced far less of the pressure that became the norm over the years. Except for the one high-profile but short-lived attempt during the 2009 long march to meddle with the ‘numbers’ on which channels appeared, there are few other systematic anti-press efforts that the party can be held guilty for.
(However, it should be added that the party’s perception at the centre is contested by many in Sindh. It is said that within Sindh the record or the image is not as blameless as at the federal level; the province has one of the highest number of journalists who have cases registered against them under the anti-terrorism law. According to the Media Freedom Report 2019, 50 of the 60 journalists who had cases registered against them under the anti-terrorism law, among others, were from Sindh.)
The party seems to be waking up to the media’s changing reality.
Indeed, it is generally accepted that the PPP has always spoken the loudest for press freedom and not without merit. It has always given importance to human rights in general — including the right to information (except for Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s period) —- and has been recognised for it. It has now become part of the party’s value system to a large extent.
The PPP’s values and culture notwithstanding, its history may also have helped shape the party’s old guard’s view of the influence of the press. During the 11 years of Ziaul Haq, the heavily censored press had to deal with a number of red lines where the coverage of the PPP was concerned. Those of us who entered the profession later were told many a story of those days when reporting on the PPP or a young Benazir Bhutto was not routine.
And yet, this had little impact on the party’s popularity and support base. (It was simply one tool among many used by a dictator to try and stamp out a party’s support without much success.) Could this have been one reason the party, especially its old guard, felt that negative coverage didn’t matter and should not be countered? The story told about the prime minister earlier is a case in point.
Qaim Ali Shah is another example. As chief minister of Sindh, he was consistently the target of jokes as well as negative coverage in the national press but it passed without any pushback from him or his government. It was as if it didn’t matter that such constant coverage created a rather unfair image of a man who was clueless. There was never any effort from the party or the chief minister himself to contest this perception. And over time, the perception became the universally held view, for no one ever provided an alternative one.
Other parties had a completely different approach to the press. Not only could one witness a pushback, there was also an active effort to ensure coverage. These efforts increased in post-2008 times when it was clear that the proliferating news channels and their outreach could and did shape views. For example, if Shahbaz Sharif as Punjab’s chief minister or Mustafa Kamal as Karachi’s nazim were seen to be effective at their jobs, one reason for this was their strategy to engage the press — beat reporters or news organisations were told of their engagements which ensured that their visits or meetings were covered and reported. Pictures of Shahbaz Sharif clad in boots in knee-high water don’t just happen — coordination and planning leads to photo opportunities. And in the times of an overactive media, this is simply good strategy, a strategy that seemed to evade the PPP.
No wonder then that at times it seemed the party was out of sync. It seemed to have not caught up with the changing realities of the media and how media coverage — whether orchestrated or not — made a big difference. It cost the PPP heavily in the 2013 elections — along with other factors lest anyone assume that media coverage in itself is enough to make or break political parties.
However, in recent years the PPP seems to be waking up to this reality. The change of chief minister in Sindh was accompanied by a more proactive approach to the media; when Murad Ali Shah took over, it was reported that he was helped by a former journalist whose job was to coordinate with the media.
It seemed to be more than just the preference of an individual. The party — or the younger generation within — is now more proactive and more aggressive when it comes to the media. This was quite obvious in recent days when the PPP in Sindh has been ahead of the others as the country grappled with Covid-19. Along with the chief minister, young ministers such as Saeed Ghani, Nasir Shah and Murtaza Wahab have led from the front in communicating their thinking and strategy to the media and the people — their constant presence on the news channels has far outstripped that of other governments and parties.
The point is, this is a new generation of the party and they seem to bring a new way of thinking; or they are more aware of the damage caused by letting the media be. Where the old guard seemed to think that the media game was not worthy of being played, the new generation has no such qualms. And seen within this context, the Twitter war between a minister and a channel is not entirely surprising. But in the coming days, it would be interesting to see how and if this new approach will also impact the party’s general and overall reputation.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, May 12th, 2020