Who needs a ministry of information?

We have grown so accustomed to a ministry of information that we hardly notice that Western, democratic countries do not have any such entity. There is no minister of information in USA, UK, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, nor in France, Sweden, Finland, Norway or Denmark.

(Author’s note: This article, written and submitted in early May 2020, did not get published for reasons that will be obvious to the reader.)

To the people of Pakistan and many other countries, including our closest and “most distant” neighbour India, a Ministry of Information comes as naturally as foreign affairs, defence, internal affairs, finance and the like. Indeed, a ministry of information would appear to be one of the pillars of the state in our part of the world.

The importance of the Information portfolio has become especially evident in Pakistan recently as it has undergone three changes at the top in less than two years. In the latest reshuffle, there is a minister of information and a special assistant to the prime minister for information, both newly appointed.

The former is the suave son of an esteemed poet and the latter a recently retired three-star general who once headed the army’s own “ministry of information” (ISPR). One might say that, between them, they bring to the portfolio high pedigree with heavy artillery.

Now, who needs a ministry of information and why? We have grown so accustomed to this ministry that we hardly notice that Western, democratic countries do not have any such entity. There is no minister of information in USA, UK, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, nor in France, Sweden, Finland, Norway or Denmark.

Even modern Germany has abolished the ministry of information, though Hitler’s Nazi Germany had in its pay the most formidable minister of information, the infamous Joseph Goebbels. He was Hitler’s closest confidante and his “Minister of Propaganda”.

All dictatorships and autocracies need dedicated departments headed by able and trusted ministers to prop up their image, rein in journalists and to demolish critics. Information ministries glorify these regimes through positive and negative propaganda. With the help of cosmetic surgery, they try to create a false reality for the people.

An important component of this effort is, no doubt, to create a siege mentality which helps perpetuate the regime. Nothing better than to suggest that enemies, internal and external, lurk everywhere, which requires a unified national response led by a strong, centralised government.

All Communist governments, from Soviet Russia to Maoist China, like Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, officially raised information manipulation to a new level. Propaganda was a legitimate, official tool in their service.

These regimes had specialised departments that devised strategies and tactics of propaganda, which was both science and art. The USSR maintained a department of “agitprop”, short for agitation and propaganda!

But quasi-democracies, such as Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, and pseudo-democacies, like Egypt, Zimbabwe, Cambodia and Venezuela, to name a few, camouflage propaganda in rather more subtle ways through a dedicated ministry of information.

President Field Marshall Mohammad Ayub Khan had a very powerful ministry of information tasked with portraying his failures in a positive light, especially after the disastrous war with India in 1965.  From 1963, it was headed by Altaf Gauhar, “a man of extraordinary versatility, charm and intelligence”, according to his obituary in The Guardian.

Gauhar wrote Ayub Khan’s autobiography, “Friends Not Masters.” In his own words, this secretary of the ministry of information became the president’s “diarist, speech writer, advisor and one of his principal associates”.

In 1968, when economic and political troubles were piling up for Ayub Khan, Gauhar’s ministry launched a propaganda blitz under the slogan: “Decade of Development”, denigrating the opposition politicians as obstructionist and unpatriotic. Within a year, Ayub was compelled to resign in disgrace. Reality always trumps propaganda.

And did I just say “trump”? The word trump brings to mind a certain President Donald Trump, who distorts information and peddles misinformation. If the American constitution and Congress did not stand in his way, he would dearly love to have a dedicated minister (secretary) of information to blurt out propaganda on his behalf.

In the event, Trump is obliged to blow his own trumpet before a rather critical, sceptical and informed press and public. He has attacked journalists as purveyors of “fake news”, while attempting to create his own “alternative truth”. The harder he tries, the worse it gets.

There is a famous axiom in the West, attributed to many mouths, that says: “Never believe anything until it is officially denied”. It is Trump’s bad luck that he is the president of a Western democratic country. Not having a minister of information is enough of a handicap, then there are elections and a term limit too. Not to forget a very free press.

In his first press conference, Pakistan’s new information minister has broached the need to review the 18th amendment, which belatedly, in 2010, gave the provinces that which was owed to them in a federation, as envisaged in the Constitution of 1973.

It is being said that the 18th amendment prevents Pakistan’s central government from enacting and executing a national plan to tackle Covid-19. Federalism has not prevented Australia and Canada, where power is greatly devolved to states/provinces, from very successfully tackling Covid-19.

If the United States is in somewhat of a mess with the same pandemic, it is because of President Trump’s egotistic leadership and his attempt to centralise authority in the White House. Pakistan’s problems are many, the most “insurmountable” being the religious “state within the state”, rather the Mulla supra-state. Provincial autonomy is not a problem. To the limited extent that it exists, it may actually be the country’s one saving grace.

Relatively large countries with diverse populations have been most successful when they have devolved power to the federating units and further down to the regional, town and municipal levels. As a rule, the greater the devolution, the better.

To better drive home the point, let me give an opposite example, that of a highly centralised and extremely powerful state endowed with rich resources, which crashed: the Soviet Union (1917-1991).

Closer to home is our own tragic experience in dealing with East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) under a “strong centre”. This term had been raised to the status of a sacred, official tenet in Pakistan until the secession of Bangladesh in 1971.

No amount of information management or cosmetic surgery, no Altaf Gauhars can prop up, let alone save, governments that fail their own people, either in peace or war. And successful governments that bring peace and prosperity to their people don’t need dedicated information ministries, no matter how full of talent.

by Razi Azmi

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6 Responses to Who needs a ministry of information?

  1. Khalid Pathan says:

    Good article. No News paper will dare to print your article.

  2. Pradeep Kalra says:

    A well written article which exhibits the author’s keen and dedicated effort to present the facts typical of his style of writing. To be honest, I had no idea that most of the developed western nations don’t have a Ministry of Information and my thanks to Razi as this has gone to increase my general knowledge.

    Talking about India and Pakistan the author has rightly explained the importance of this Ministry. Governments in both these countries use it to feed the information they want to the people. Most of it is to glorify the Government in power and the leaders as Messiahs. Since the majority of the two countries in question is illiterate they believe it to be the truth.

    The media and the TV anchors present the Leader in a positive light all the time and declare that in the absence of the present government the country will perish. The present mess is always left by the previous government and how hard is the present government working to correct everything including the weak economy. Anything to glorify the ruling party is done on a large scale all the time on the print and electronic media.

    It was as usual enlightening and fun to go through the article.

  3. Sayed Chowdhury says:

    The reason that the daily that has been publishing your op-Eds for many years did not publish this piece on Ministry of ‘mis-information’ is a no-brainer. You have hit the nail too hard on its head and driven it to the core, where it would have hurt too much had it been published.

    Given the body politic that has been Pakistan for long, or better to say, from almost the beginning, you need to be hopelessly hopeful to even dream of any reform or repair of the governance arrangements that link dissemination of information by the regime in power, and the approver of such dissemination, who are the key stakeholders that manipulate the musical chair show of governments that come and go, without changing any basic arrangements of running the statecraft.

    Like it or not, any radical change in Pakistan’s body-politic has remained and will remain a far cry from the rhetorics and promises of both civil and military regimes that have ruled Pakistan so far.

    Among those who hold high/highest offices in Pakistan, can anyone be absolved from acting against democratic principles and practices? Not even Mr Jinnah, who as Governor General (head of state) had Cabinet portfolios with him and used to preside over Cabinet meetings.

    He never trusted his lieutenants, which could be for genuine reasons. Most of the leaders that followed him including Liaquat Ali khan exercised unbridled power and nipped the embryos of all democratic institutions.

    Liaquat’s introduction of the so-called Objective Resolution literally dictated the constitution-making and rendered the purpose meaningless. All of the 50-plus amendments moved by opposition and minority leaders were thrown into the trash bin and those who moved were hounded by Liaquat and his cohorts as enemies of Pakistan, as if only those wearing the Kashmiri cap were patriots!

    Their sole purpose: to perpetuate power. Why it took Pakistan 23 years to hold the first national election in 1970?
    No sin against the masses probably goes unpunished, although for this to happen sometimes can take an unusually long time.

    Is the time up for the people of Pakistan to get up from the Rip Van Winkle-like slumber or the induced comma they have accepted as a life support for themselves?

    Godspeed Dr Azmi, I salute your relentless efforts in making your points!!!

  4. Ali Wako says:

    Hi Razi,

    Thanks for the excellent comparison using several countries to explain why we do not need a Ministry of Information. I grew up in Kenya where the Ministry of Information was always part of the several Government Departments.

    It is a sign of changing times that the Kenyan Ministry of Information is now called the Ministry of Information, Communication & Technology (ICT). People in Kenya no longer associate the Ministry of Information with provision of “information from Government”, the focus has gradually shifted to the information and technology aspects.

    Also, isn’t it funny that I never realised we do not have a Ministry of Information in Australia though I have now lived here for twenty years!

    • Razi Azmi says:

      See, Ali, having grown up in Kenya you take a ministry of information as the natural order of things in a state! As to the change of name, from Ministry of Information to the Ministry of Information, Communication & Technology (ICT), that too is a part of the misinformation ploy, a cosmetic change, thought up by the head spin doctor himself. Old wine in new bottle!!

      As long as Kenya hovers between being a pseudo-democracy and a quasi-democracy, the name change will be no more successful in changing the nature of its information ministry, than the change of the name of the west African country of Upper Volta to Burkina Faso (which means “land of incorruptible people” in the local language) in 1984 was in eliminating corruption there.

  5. Khurram says:

    It’s sad that Daily Times didn’t have the courage to publish this article,
    What happened to the so-called free press?

    As always, Dr R Azmi has written tremendous article and put things in perspective beautifully.

    Kudos to you, sir.

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