Dawn Editorial 6th March 2024

Selective broadcasting

IN a democracy, the media serves as a guardian of public discourse, where the voices of all — especially the marginalised — find their echo. It is troubling to note how the state-owned Pakistan Television continues to censor some voices.

Most recently, it refused to air speeches by lawmakers Omar Ayub, Mahmood Khan Achakzai, Akhtar Mengal and Asad Qaiser during a National Assembly session. Instances of such blackouts by PTV are rife.

In 2017, opposition members boycotted the budget session after PTV refused to telecast live the speech of then-opposition leader Khursheed Shah. In 2019, opposition parties accused then-PM Imran Khan of coercing broadcasters into blocking coverage of his critics. Channels were taken off air, and opposition events went unreported, an action PML-N’s Maryam Nawaz branded as Pakistan facing its “worst censorship”.

Similarly, then-chairman Naeem Bukhari’s admission in 2020 that PTV would exclusively represent the government’s stance stands in stark contrast with its stated vision of beaming content that is “objective” and “inclusive”. Such bias in favour of the ruling party deprives the public of a holistic understanding of national affairs, breeding an environment of misinformation and disengagement.

A democratic society thrives on diverse viewpoints and robust debate, where state media serves the public interest by ensuring balanced coverage of all political perspectives. It is imperative for the integrity of Pakistan’s democracy that PTV and other state-controlled media outlets remain impartial, providing equal platforms for all political entities. Regulatory frameworks should be revisited to safeguard against undue influence, particularly from the government, ensuring the media’s role as the fourth pillar of democracy is not compromised.

The new government, led by the PML-N, would do well to remember that not so long ago they were the ‘pariahs’ that were being censored. They are now in a position to stop this ugly practice. This muzzling of ‘other’ voices only adds to the public’s discontent and disillusionment.

Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2024

Ramazan prices

THOUGH inflation may have come down to a 16-month low, clocking in at 23.1pc, the modest gains may be wiped out by high food inflation come Ramazan. As the month of fasting approaches, prices have already begun to climb up across the nation. In particular, the cost of iftar and sehr staples — from meat to gram flour to some fruits and vegetables — has witnessed an upward trajectory in the run-up to Ramazan. There are various reasons for this, such as high demand and limited supply, high global commodity and energy prices, as well as the age-old practice of price gouging and the creation of artificial shortages by market players to make a quick buck. Moreover, Ramazan-related inflation is a global phenomenon, and not limited to Pakistan. The trick is for governments to counter high prices through targeted subsidies, as well as ensure that traders do not flout the official price lists, in order to enable families to enjoy a decent spread.

On its part, the newly installed federal government has launched a Rs7.5bn Ramazan relief package through the utility stores. Only those registered with the Benazir Income Support Programme will be able to avail discounts on Ramazan staples. On the other hand, the new Punjab government has launched a scheme to deliver food packages to people’s doorsteps for the holy month. Transparency should be ensured in these schemes so that food rations reach the neediest segments of the population, while the quality of foodstuffs should not be compromised. Aside from such schemes, local administrations will set up bachat bazars to sell discounted Ramazan staples. Here, again the quality of the food products on sale should be maintained, as in past years there have been consumer complaints of substandard items being sold. Aside from targeted schemes, the state should activate its price monitoring committees at the local level, so traders do not fleece consumers in the name of ‘shortages’. While it is true that certain items do witness high demand during Ramazan, traders also jack up the prices of other foodstuffs, citing scarcity. This profiteering needs to be checked. Moreover, many charities will arrange Ramazan ration drives. These efforts need to adhere to certain SOPs so that the dignity of the recipients is not compromised, and proper crowd control mechanisms are in place to prevent stampedes.

Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2024

Poor performance

THE nation is glad to bid adieu to the caretakers. The day could not have come sooner. Interim governments are supposed to have a limited mandate tailored for the limited time they are given in office. They are expected to keep their head down, keep the country running day-to-day, and provide an enabling environment for the smooth transfer of power within the 90-day deadline set in the Constitution.

As a rule, caretaker governments should be entirely unremarkable and completely forgettable; instead, these last interim governments will be remembered for the controversial legacy they leave behind. They not only overstayed their lawful term, they also wore out their welcome due to several key appointees’ unwillingness to keep within their lane. And, by the end of it all, the caretakers somehow managed to leave the country in an even worse shape than it had been when they had taken over.

The period between August 2023 and March 2024 will be remembered for the intensified oppression of already marginalised communities, the uprooting and expulsion of Afghan refugees, the repression of a certain political party, the curtailment and evisceration of democratic norms, possibly the most controversial general election held in recent history, and the reversal of hard-fought digital freedoms. As the country slid deeper and deeper into the abyss, the interim government either stood by and did nothing or made excuses for the various forces responsible for trampling upon the Constitution and abusing the law.

Had the caretakers focused on their task and sought to deliver conscientiously, according to the terms under which they were entrusted with the responsibility, the country may by now have been on the path to healing. For this, there is no forgiveness for the caretakers’ failures. The country will continue paying the price for their complacency for a very long time.

Things perhaps may have turned out differently had the country been handed over to leaders with fewer personal ambitions. Alas, some of the caretakers seemed to consider their appointment an opportunity to demonstrate their ‘utility’. The prime minister repeatedly gaslighted the victims of state excesses and also demonstrated a knack for doublespeak, especially when confronted with the failings of his government. The IT minister would have nary a clue about the internet restrictions that were enforced willy-nilly under his watch.

The journalist appointed information minister had great difficulty getting along with a free press. There was also the interior minister, who controversially resigned just a month and a half before the elections to contest a seat. To be fair, a few of the appointees did quietly manage to accomplish something positive. Unfortunately, their contributions will not amount to much when this period is reviewed in history. Thankfully, we can now move on.

Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2024

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