Dec 25, 2009

Frightened by journalists?

Dr Masooda Bano

The PPP’s senior leadership has made a wise move by agreeing to abide by the decision of the Supreme Court on the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) and deciding to fight the cases reopened against some of the senior party members in the court of law rather than entering into a confrontation with the judiciary. President Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani have made the right statements. However, some of the party leaders have been less clear on how to deal with increasing levels of critiques that the PPP is now facing. Some of the PPP leaders are accusing certain journalists, critical of the PPP’s policies or actions, of acting as foreign agents to destabilise the country. The senior PPP leadership needs to recognise that this is a failing strategy by all counts.

There are a number of reasons that such behaviour does not suit representatives of a major political party. At the most basic level, it shows a very high level of sensitivity and nervousness on the part of the PPP leadership, which undermines its own image. Politicians who enjoy widespread popularity or political parties which are confident of their popular appeal do not have to resort to the level of picking on a few journalists and holding them responsible for defaming a party or destabilising a government. A party leadership, which is in touch with the public and is responding to public needs, enjoys much confidence in its ability to withstand a media trial. The reasons for that are obvious.

If the party is delivering on the ground, there is much less of a chance that the public will be interested in following the anti-government discourse generated by a few people. Thus, there will be less of a need for the party senior ranks to feel irritated and go after individual journalists. Second, the party which is delivering will indeed have some senior journalists on its side to counterbalance the views of those who are critiquing it. Thus again, rather than entering in a mudslinging match with the journalists, the leadership of a national level political party has many other ways of dealing with any critique it is being subjected to in the media.

The media might be an exploitative industry and whole news outlets or individual journalists might be selling their skills to gain personal benefits. The idea is not to defend the media or the journalists or to argue that they are above questioning, but to highlight that media campaigns while highly influential do not completely replace the personal experiences of the public. An anti-government media campaign cannot on its own erode the popularity of the government if it is actually delivering on the ground. The problem with PPP’s government is that is has failed to convince the public that it is committed to reform. The foot-dragging on major institutional reform issues, such as reinstatements of the judges, was one thing. Even more worrying from the public point of view has been the government’s failure to show that it is committed to improving the day-to-day living conditions of the people.

The state of education and health sectors remains deplorable. The government has not even announced major reforms plans for these sectors, forget about the actual implementation process. The employment problems, inflation, inaccessibility of basic food items, etc., are making the people critical of the government whether or not the media spins anti-government stories. The recent high-profile cases of negligence in leading hospitals in Pakistan also show the continuingly deteriorating standards of state monitoring of such facilities. Of course, these problems have not been specific to the period of the PPP government. The issue is that the sitting government is also not taking any measures to fix them. At the same time, the government has failed to settle the issue of militancy or come up with more clear terms of engagement with the US. The public is as suspicious of the concessions given by the present government to the US as it was of the Musharraf government.

Given all this, the PPP senior leadership would do well for itself if, rather than lashing out at individual journalists for attempting to destabilise the government, it tried to analyse why the public is willing to believe the critiques of the PPP made by these journalists. Pakistan for sure does not need another military intervention. In order to avert any chances of such an intervention, it is very important that the political leadership acts responsibly. Prime Minister Gilani is responding well to the crisis faced by the PPP leadership. The other members need to follow the same course. If PPP’s leadership responded to criticisim by implementing a real programme of development, it would have to worry much less about what journalists are saying about it.

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