Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Changing perceptions about Pakistan

By Malik Muhammad Ashraf

Needless to emphasize that presently Pakistan is the most misunderstood country in the world and the phenomenon of terrorism and religious extremism, arguably, is the major factor in distorting its image at the global level. This scourge is a sequel to some unimaginative and self-defined strategic policies of the major global powers and equally shortsighted and groveling approach of our past rulers who in their zeal to prolong their power stints bartered away the sovereignty of the country, raising the expectations of our allies to a level where it is simply impossible to deliver without undermining our own security and compromising the national honor.

The result is that despite the fact that Pakistan as a front line state has suffered the most in men and material in the war on terror and helped in dismantling the terrorist network of Osama Bin Laden, our allies and the western countries look askance at our endeavors, doubt our commitment to the war on terror and decidedly remain oblivious to our national and strategic interests in the region.

The Western media with its all-permeating power and unfettered global outreach is also feverishly engaged in maligning Pakistan and soiling its image among the comity of nations.It is encouraging to note that in the wake of the Salala attack that killed 26 military personnel, the government and the establishment have finally been jerked out of the self-imposed slumber and complacency and a vigorous exercise is underway to redefine and recalibrate the terms of our engagement with the US and its allies in conformity with our national and security interests in the region. While recasting the new approach that will be implemented through the diplomatic channels, it is equally imperative for the government to strengthen and bolster efforts to create a better understanding of Pakistan’s position and its image internationally focusing on countering the negative propaganda against Pakistan and projecting a soft image of the country relying on the positive things that have happened and done by Pakistan not only in the war against terror but also the measures put in place to improve economic, social and political conditions in line with the globally accepted principles. The emergence of an independent judiciary and a free media in Pakistan are indeed epoch making developments.

So are the strides taken towards ensuring gender equality and emancipation of women through a number of administrative and legislative measures that strengthen Pakistan’s credentials as a progressive Islamic country. These factors can go a long way in projecting soft image of Pakistan and remove some of the mis-perceptions that exist about Pakistan at the international level. To achieve the foregoing objectives, Pakistan will have to upgrade and restructure the existing PR mechanism at the international level. Our press sections abroad unfortunately are poorly staffed and under-financed. Apart from this perennial shortcoming, we do not have any presence in important capitals of Central Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and Australia.

Viewed in the backdrop of these imperatives, the three-day Consultative Conference of the Press Officers, organized by the External Publicity Wing of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in Islamabad recently, was a timely and imaginative step to deliberate on the much needed initiative in this regard. Information Minister, Dr.Firdous Ashiq Awan addressing the concluding session made a commitment that the government would spare no effort in upgrading and restructuring the working of the External Publicity Wing and the Press Sections abroad and strengthening the process of capacity building of the Press Officers through language training courses.

Some of the major recommendations made by the forum include: institutionalizing the Consultative forum, organizing exchange of visits by the senior Pakistani journalists abroad through the press sections for interaction with the media personalities of the host countries, opening of new press sections in the areas identified above, public-private partnership in projecting soft image of Pakistan, production of the publicity material in consultation with other ministries and extensive use of the social media at the national and international level.

It is hard to take issue with these long awaited commitments and the desirable initiatives identified by the forum. Pakistan badly needs to enhance the outreach of its Public Relations mechanism and hence opening of more press sections in the identified areas should be given top priority. The proposal for organizing visits of senior Pakistani journalists abroad has a considerable merit as their interaction with their counterparts can help a great deal in repudiating some of the perceptions that exist in the minds of the leaders and forums that shape the public opinion. Public-private collaboration in the domain of Public Relations will not only help in improving the quality of the effort but would lend more credibility to it.

The institutionalization of the consultative forum can also contribute to re-evaluation of the PR efforts periodically and effecting necessary changes in the adopted strategies. In the modern era, media has assumed tremendous importance and power. Diplomacy has its own advantages and efficacy, but it cannot match the power of communications in changing perceptions and attitudes of the people and influencing their judgments. Pakistan needs a sustained and well-orchestrated effort to use the power of media and the PR regime to address the issue of image building in the larger and long-term interest of the country. We need to recognize the existing and emerging regional and global realities and re-choreograph our strategies accordingly. We need to pursue our objectives with a pro-active and rational approach. There is no room for complacency. The deliberations of the consultative forum must be implemented immediately. One hopes that the Information Minister will make sure that the commitments she has made are translated into reality and this commendable initiative does not whither away like a damp squib.