By abolishing the Ministry of Information’s secret fund, the government has clearly shown its intent to ensure the free flow of information in the country. With the strengthening of democracy, as well as the information freedom, it is becoming important that the media and the ministry come out of their past in order to reconcile and realise their new working relationship. Indeed, the freedom of media has brought an end to the authoritarian control enjoyed by the Ministry of Information since its inception.

In the past, the broadcast media was completely under state control and the print media was exploited by tools such as advertisement, newsprint and financial dole-outs to journalists. Consequentially, this nurtured immense displeasure in the society against the government in general and the ministry in particular. On the other hand, the ministry as an institution also found it hard to reconcile with its new role of working as a facilitator rather than as a controller, besides the fact that it lacked experience in dealing with free, vibrant and multiple outlets of media channels.

The two primary functions of the ministry are the projection of public policy to the people of Pakistan and conducting public diplomacy, both at home and overseas. The public policy is the government’s decision of doing or not doing something. The importance of public policy projection is well documented in the study of public management. Before the media’s freedom, the ministry performed this function through its various departments, but now the media anchors provide sufficient opportunity to government representatives to justify their policies and actions. In this way, the role of public policy projection through state institutions has significantly decreased. It is, therefore, about time that PTV is now depoliticised and allowed to work on competitive basis. It may be state television and not government television.

Having said that, the media must also recognise the ministry’s function and, thus, help its information officers to perform their function by sparing due space in print and electronic media for the coverage of their respective ministries.

Of prime importance is the External Publicity (EP) Wing, which carries out the function of public diplomacy. Public diplomacy is regarded as the framework of activities by which a government seeks to influence the public (especially foreign) attitudes in a manner that they become supportive of its foreign policy and national interests. It differs from traditional diplomacy in that public diplomacy goes beyond governments and interfaces primarily with non-governmental individuals and organisations, like businessmen, think-tanks, tourists, sport institutions, etc. Successful public diplomacy, thus, involves an active engagement with the public in a manner that builds over a period of time, a relationship of trust and credibility.

The EP Wing strives to foster a greater understanding of Pakistan and its foreign policy concerns. It is an age of ideas marked by the battle for hearts and minds. The wing goes all-out to partner with major domestic and international universities, think-tanks and research organisations to organise seminars and conferences on subjects that are relevant to Pakistan’s concerns. Promotion of music and food constitute important elements of Pakistan’s soft power.

In addition, a series of documentaries on contributions made by the government, NGOs, media and various individuals in their own fields of work or in improving socio-economic conditions go a long way towards promoting the soft image of Pakistan.

Digital diplomacy is extremely important for a two-way communication with the public in general; enabling the government to listen and understand the pulse of the nation. Fifty percent of the Pakistani population is youth, and thus the internet serves as an effective and economical tool to engage it. The ministry’s Cyber Wing is almost in pitiable state. The social media initiatives of the Public Diplomacy Division must be galvanised as a catalyst for many of our missions and posts abroad to start their own Facebook pages, blogs and online publication of articles and essays.

The ministry continues to provide its advisory function to governments to formulate their media policy. That can be referred to as a media relations policy, an information policy or a communications policy. In their own self-interest, all governments prepare and enact an official media policy. It should describe in detail on how, when and why the cabinet ministers and MNAs should interact with the media. This is done in order to avoid controversies and rumours that can create disappointment and hopelessness in the masses. The ministry should provide training to the government representatives in how to handle the media.

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) must be independent and free of all the political pressures. It is required to play the role of a facilitator for the Pakistani media to become one of the best in the world by improving upon journalistic standards. Of course, it is important that media contents are free from bias, news sensationalism and commercial interests. To achieve this, while ensuring freedom of information, is an uphill task and requires the government and the media owners and professionals to start a dialogue on “freedom of information with responsibility.” A series of national and international seminars and meetings will be made a routine matter to improve upon each other’s wisdom. The ministry should play its maximum role by facilitating this dialogue process, both financially and physically. Media should not perceive it as an infringement on their liberty.

In all of the above mentioned areas, the ministry’s performance as an institution is just as good as any other institution of Pakistan. The reasons are lack of professional capacity, financial scarcity and poor service structure. In words of my colleague, “a good service structure is the key to any reform.” The officers of information group need to be imparted state-of-the-art training on media management, handling and public relations. They need to be equipped with modern tools and techniques to make them cope with powerful media challenges. Career planning of the information group officers is a key to motivate the officers to perform to the best of their capability. The ministry should establish an independent section of human resource management tasked with the mandate of undertaking career planning of the officers on professional lines.

The writer is an information professional in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.