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The Express Tribune Editorial 18 March 2020

Govt’s digital media team

In view of the rising popularity of digital media, the PTI-led government has decided to set up a special media team to devise and lead strategy to promote and defend its policies on social media and other digital media platforms. Other responsibilities of the team will be to deal with the critics of the government and to debunk fake news. Recently, the federal cabinet approved the allocation of a supplementary grant of Rs42.791 million for the current fiscal for the creation of a digital media wing at the ministry of information and broadcasting. The government has crafted a social media policy for its departments.
Social media is playing a significant role in presenting a true picture of incidents and events and thereby thwarting attempts by certain quarters at suppressing the truth, but at the same time it is also being used by irresponsible elements for spreading fake news. The government’s digital media wing will understandably be making efforts to uncover falsehood. This is indeed a noble aim provided it is pursued honestly and not used as a tool of witch-hunt against detractors. Such suspicions do arise in the public mind, and need to be removed. The government should ensure that the digital media team does not cross its publicly-declared mandate of working within bounds of decency.
The government has every right to defend its policies and the new media team is supposed to explain the government’s policies and to defend them. Everyone should have the courage to say two plus two is four, that is, to uphold the truth. In worldly affairs even enemies defend the good deeds of their foes, but defending the indefensible is taken as the true measure of loyalty. Such show of loyalty should be discouraged. The 23-member digital media team will liaise with various ministries and departments. We hope the team serves its purpose and is not merely useful as a form of employment.


‘External’ policymaking

Former Foreign Office spokesperson Tasneem Aslam threw both caution and diplomacy to the wind in a recent interview in which she accused Nawaz Sharif of barring the FO from criticising India and saying anything against Kulbhushan Jadhav. The retired diplomat also claimed Nawaz had business interests in India and that the “instructions did not benefit the country, but I don’t know whether they benefited his own interests or not”. Tasneem also oddly accused the three-time former PM of not making any anti-India statements in his UN speech, even though she admitted he did speak on Kashmir. Given that, officially at least, Pakistan’s only major issue with India is over the status of Kashmir, this is a surprising point to be critical of.
What is unsurprising is that like many bureaucrats, the former diplomat seems to have had no trouble being a mouthpiece for the Nawaz government for years. Speaking out after the fact is not courageous, but whistleblowing is. If she felt the government was doing something wrong, she could have easily made it known at the time, rather than literally being the one espousing those same talking points that she now finds so offensive. Even Human Right Minister Shireen Mazari, while claiming Tasneem was only ‘confirming’ what they always knew, and praising her courage, also raised this point when she asked why “at that time did MOFA go along?”
Meanwhile, Khawaja Asif, who was defence and foreign minister under Nawaz, rubbished the claim and countered by saying that PM Imran Khan has also barely spoken about Jadhav, and that the accusation of Nawaz having business ties across the border is just political propaganda. Similarly, Kamran Shafi, an ex-military officer appointed ambassador to Cuba by Nawaz, called Tasneem’s interview a ‘pack of lies’, and claimed the undue influence on the Foreign Office actually came from elsewhere. And on that, all sides can agree — foreign policy decisions are not being made by the Foreign Office, but are imposed on them.


Infected economy


Coronavirus crisis is upon us. The corona-positive cases are now coming thick and fast. The situation threatens to turn into a major challenge that — needless to mention — is way beyond our capacity. Notwithstanding the direct threat that the virus poses to human life, the economic impact of the mushrooming infection is not going to be easy to swallow for a country that is stony broke already. The estimates by global financial institutions are scary. The Asian Development Bank says that in case of a major outbreak, Pakistan’s economy will take a $5 billion hit, with the private businesses affected the most; the growth rate will fall by 1.5%; and around 946,000 people will be deprived of their livelihood. The IMF is also reported to have forewarned our financial czars of the impact of the economic slowdown in China due to the virus.
In their response to the crisis though, the ministries responsible for economic management in the country were literally slumbering till the corona-infected cases tripled in a single day on Monday, in what does indicate an exponential growth. Consequently came a meeting between the PM and his economic team. The meeting, however, only turned out to be an occasion for stocktaking and making customary announcements. While the meeting was expected to announce a short-term policy relief for businesses and people, especially those belonging to the middle and lower-middle classes, it only culminated in the formation of an inter-ministerial committee, headed by Finance Adviser Hafeez Shaikh, tasked with keeping a constant vigil on the economy and advising steps to ward off the economic impact of the pandemic.
The de facto finance minister must focus on setting up a separate fund over coronavirus. He must not look towards absorbing the whole windfall from cut in global petrol prices into the budget, and go for as much fiscal injection as possible — especially now when the SBP has made only a symbolic cut, of 75 basis points, in its policy rate, and announced refinancing facilities for setting up new businesses and purchase of equipment to fight the virus. There is a dire need to ensure food security for people and supply of resources to medics to fight the outbreak, and minimise the impact on livelihood and businesses.
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