Minister of State for Information, Broadcasting and National Heritage, speaks to Aurora about the challenges of leading her Ministry in today’s media world.
AURORA: Minister, how has the role of Minister of Information evolved in view of the changing media landscape?
MARRIYUM AURANGZEB: The media is changing every day, in fact every moment; it has come a long way from where it started and it is evolving for the better. A look at the rules of business of this Ministry will tell you that we are about everything the Government does under the umbrella of the Federation. In terms of how the media is changing, I am looking at this from four different perspectives. Firstly, as the democratic system itself has evolved, the media as well as all other institutions have evolved. However, I see a missing link and this has to do with facilitating training for journalists. We have a remarkable institute in the Information Services Academy and I want to use this forum to establish a training programme for journalists across all levels. As the industry is evolving, it is generating employment, but it is not necessarily looking into expertise in subject matter; reporters are usually inducted without any skill set with respect to handling the sensitivities that Pakistan is going through at the moment. There is the 2015 Electronic Media Code of Conduct, but there is no forum that tells journalists about it and this is something I am trying to establish through the Information Services Academy.
A: Are you taking on board media stakeholders?
MA: I am taking everyone on board; this is a very inclusive intervention policy. I am bringing in the private sector in terms of training and module development. The training should evolve according to the pace of the media. To this end, I am engaging with credible experts and think tanks. I am bringing in the international donor community because the development of journalism in Pakistan is a priority among donors and international partners.
A: How sure are you that this initiative will be sustainable, even when a new minister assumes your portfolio?
MA: If I looked upon my role as just that of being an ordinary Minister of Information, I would not have focused on what I am actually trying to do; I would have dealt with the job by just being a spokesperson for the Government. My focus on any intervention I make is to institutionalise it and make it sustainable, no matter which government comes in next. I am looking at ways to incentivise, formalise and certify the training programme and ensure that it adds value to a journalist’s career. I am running a two-year partnership with the private sector and the donor community just to lock this in.
A: How will journalists apply for this training?
MA: Through the media houses.
A: Who will fund the training?
MA: It will be co-financed. The international partners I am bringing in have committed to spending untapped money on this. For example, we have a partnership agreement with the EU called JSP Plus and one of the main components of this agreement is to provide training to journalists in Pakistan, yet the funding was just lying there. I am eyeing those pockets and will then co-finance them with the mainstream budget of the Ministry, so that the stake is equal. My second intervention is on the question of the security threats journalists face when covering terrorist incidents. To address this, we have put together the first ever legislation on journalist security and welfare.
"One of the important rules of business of this Ministry is to project the Government’s performance. However, if the Ministry is not strengthened and equipped to do so; if it does not have the mechanisms, capacity and technology to project the performance of the Government, the Prime Minister or the positive image of Pakistan, this cannot be done. My responsibility is to do this before the elections."
A: When will this be enacted?
MA: The legislation is complete. We have sent it to different stakeholders for their input. I have voluntarily written (and this is the first time this step has been taken) to the Chairman of the Senate, the Speaker and the Standing Committee of Parliament to review it before it goes to Parliament. I have also sent it to the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE), the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA), the All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS), the press clubs and all the relevant agencies, so that it is reviewed along with all such legislation that exists in this region and other conflict zones. If the timelines are met, the legislation will be tabled in the next quarter. Thirdly, I am looking at how to enforce the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) Ordinance 2007 to ensure that it becomes a win-win situation for all stakeholders. For example, whenever PEMRA issues a notice, it is seen as a threat to the freedom of expression and not as the implementation of the Code of Conduct. Everybody seems to think that it is their right to contest PEMRA and take suo motu notice on any issue. Whenever PEMRA takes an action, the courts often issue a stay order against it. All this limits and hinders the performance of PEMRA. When show-cause notices are issued, PEMRA follows all the procedures. First, there is a warning, then a show-cause notice, then a fine and finally the channel is stopped from broadcasting. The objectives of the interventions I am making are to facilitate a process of accountability so that the Code of Conduct is implemented. However, this will not happen unless we build up the capacity of journalists. The good thing is that in the last few months, editorial content committees at the private media level are in place – and where they are not, there is a realisation that they should be. The first step is to realise the need for self accountability and introspection when reviewing the content at the media’s end before it goes on air.
A: A criticism of the Code of Conduct is that the language is often ambiguous and allows space for subjective rather than objective interpretation. Do you think the language should be reviewed and made more rigorous?
MA: I have read the PEMRA law extensively as well as reviewed media policies and laws regionally and internationally and the law is comprehensive and can be implemented. The language is straightforward and black and white. It is just that if you don’t want to understand, you won’t understand. The Code of Conduct is categorical.
A: Then why this criticism?
MA: You have to educate people about the law. There will come a point when the media will start to understand the law of PEMRA but that will only be when there is training, education and awareness. This is the missing link I was talking about earlier. We have to take the industry along and educate them, because whatever the law, understanding it is very important. Fourthly, I am trying to revive the Ministry of Information as an institution. For example, one of the important rules of business of this Ministry is to project the Government’s performance. However, if the Ministry is not strengthened and equipped to do so; if it does not have the mechanisms, capacity and technology to project the performance of the Government, the Prime Minister or the positive image of Pakistan, this cannot be done. My responsibility is to do this before the elections, so that at least whatever we have done and delivered on as a government is projected and communicated to the people of Pakistan.
A: Do you think that the Press Information Department (PID) also needs revamping?
MA: To be honest, time is against me. Any kind of reform needs time.
A: But you do agree there is a need to reform?
MA: Of course. I am not ignoring this aspect, but I am also realistic about the time I have and what I can achieve, because I don’t want to leave anything unfinished. I want to complete the interventions I think are possible within the timeframe I have. The reality is that the Government is going into election mode, so time is against me. I am trying to do two things. The first is the ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulation) certification. I have carried out a complete review and assessment. We have reached the stage where the new software is ready and in the trial phase. The software is in line with how circulation certification is done in the rest of the world, which was unfortunately missing in Pakistan. We have been working in partnership with the Punjab IT Board and the software is state-of-the-art. We are launching a stakeholder consultation in the first week of March with APNS, the media houses and all relevant bodies and it will take place between April and May.
"If I looked upon my role as just that of being an ordinary Minister of Information, I would not have focused on what I am actually trying to do; I would have dealt with the job by just being a spokesperson for the Government. My focus on any intervention I make is to institutionalise it and make it sustainable, no matter which government comes in next."
A: Are you anticipating opposition from stakeholders who may have benefitted from the loopholes in the current verification system?
MA: I am doing this for my internal strategy reasons and it is not just about the print media, it is also about rating the electronic media. I am one of the largest advertisers in both the print and electronic media. For my own strategy and value-for-money reasons, I need this infrastructure at both levels. For the electronic media we are relying on a private company for ratings, but I want my own in-house rating system and this is in the implementation stages. I am partnering with the private sector. I feel that audience measurement should not be monopolised; there should be a system that can be used for counter validation and verification. I have a direct stake in this, which is tax payer’s money and there should be accountability and transparency. As far as the ABC is concerned I am not doing anything that is not in line with the verification system that is in place. The difference is that at the moment it is done manually. I am simply taking out the human factor, but we are still dealing with the same documents that are submitted to the ABC; I am just putting these documents into an automated, transparent software.
A: The Government has finally increased the print media’s government rates after five years. Why is there no set timeframe for rate revision and on what basis was the 15% determined?
MA: Almost immediately after I assumed office, the demand was put to me that the rates should be increased by 15%. This figure came directly from the stakeholders and so without indulging in further research, I gave precedence to the wisdom of the stakeholders and after speaking to the Prime Minister, I agreed to 15%.
A: Why are the Government rates for the electronic media pegged differently?
MA: We are looking into that. There has never been an officially set tariff for the electronic media. However, at PID level, I am looking at launching an official policy and revising tariffs. I still think that the credibility of the print media is far more than that of the electronic media, which is different in the morning, different in the afternoon, different in the evening time and completely different during the talk shows; the story just changes all the time.
A: What objectives does the Government set for itself when it advertises?
MA: I have been focusing on two things. Firstly, to ensure proper verification, then there is the question of the credibility of different newspapers, and it is very challenging to find a way to rate them. I believe that for specific projects, awareness should be communicated at regional level, yet the regional press is often ignored because it is not organised. PID is looking at how we can encourage the use of regional newspapers for project-specific advertising. For example CPEC; it goes without saying that everyone should be informed about it, but at the same time, the people of Balochistan should feel even more confident about it because it originates in Balochistan. There is also a need to review the system of newspaper categorisation (A and B) because when these categories were determined things were different in terms of population, city sizes and circulation. Once we have the automated ABC in place, we will be able to review this. Now, as a stakeholder and one of the biggest advertisers, it is crucial that what I communicate in an advertisement should educate the people of Pakistan on a particular aspect. Recently, we have changed the designs of our ads to make them more impactful. I mean, if one ad can sell millions of bottles of Coke, why can’t the Government’s performance, which is for the benefit of the people, be projected with the same effect? Value for money is very important to me in terms of the effectiveness in creating awareness and giving the people of Pakistan confidence in how the Government is working for them. That connect needs to be established when I am advertising in the print or electronic media.
"As a stakeholder and one of the biggest advertisers, it is crucial that what I communicate in an advertisement should educate the people of Pakistan on a particular aspect. Recently, we have changed the designs of our ads to make them more impactful. I mean, if one ad can sell millions of bottles of Coke, why can’t the Government’s performance, which is for the benefit of the people, be projected with the same effect?"
A: Why are government ads notoriously badly designed?
MA: This is why we have decided to establish a creative unit within PID.
A: Would it not be easier and more effective to outsource this to a good advertising agency?
MA: My take on this is that despite all our efforts, they don’t think out-of-the-box. I want to make our advertising more educational, more youthful and capable of conveying the message. I also want to move towards more social issues in terms of my communication.
A: A lot of advertising agencies will do that for you.
MA: We are reviewing the list of advertising agencies on our panel. There are many agencies from the private sector that are doing good work, but they are not on our panel.
A: How much effort and investment is your Ministry putting into PTV?
MA: I want to do a lot for PTV; it is very close to my heart. PTV is a terrestrial channel and has maximum reach. We just need to put a few things in place technically and in terms of content and production quality. If we want to take forward the idea of a progressive Pakistan, this can only be achieved by airing quality productions. Unfortunately, in the last 40 years we have not focused on this. We have deprived our young population of the ability to make films; yet this is the tool that will promote a positive image and narrative for Pakistan. I am looking at a film policy to incentivise production and broadcasting, so that young people who want to make a film can be facilitated through the banks and if the corporate sector wants to invest in film production, it too should be incentivised. We are in dialogue with the Finance Minister about providing these incentives, perhaps in the form of tax holidays. Our national heritage, our culture, our literature is so rich, but there is no medium to promote them; yet, that is the only way to counter extreme ideologies. For the sustainability of Zarb-e-Azb and other counter-terrorism operations, you need to create this narrative.
Marriyum Aurangzeb was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig.
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