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