Won’t push partisan 'agendas' through Pakistan digital media wing, its chief says

Pakistani journalists wearing protective facemasks report outside the Aga Khan University Hospital where a patient of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus has been admitted in Karachi on Feb. 26, 2020. (AFP/File)
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Updated 06 August 2020

Won’t push partisan 'agendas' through Pakistan digital media wing, its chief says

  • Imran Ghazali is one of the founding members of the social media team of PM Khan’s ruling Tehreek-e-Insaf party
  • Digital Media Wing was set up in February “to effectively counter fake and libellous news and highlight development agenda of government”

ISLAMABAD: A longtime aide to Prime Minister Imran Khan and the newly appointed chief of Pakistan’s Digital Media Wing (DMW) said this week he would not allow official social media channels to be used to push “personal or party” agendas.
The cabinet of PM Khan approved the new digital unit in February this year, and appointed Imran Ghazali as its general manager on August 3. Ghazali, a longtime media executive, is one of the founding members of the social media team of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, the political party founded and headed by PM Khan.
The DMW, which has a 22-member team of content writers, graphic designers, video editors and videographers, has received funding of Rs42.791 million, or $256,000, from the government to kickstart its work.
“Our sole mandate is to provide the public with genuine official information on social media platforms,” Ghazali told Arab News in an interview. “Let me assure our critics that we won’t be pushing any personal or party agenda through official digital channels.”
Responding to criticism that he has been hired because of his closeness to the prime minister, Ghazali said: “I’m hired for the job based on my years of industry experience, and through a rigorous official process.”
Ghazali has previously worked as head social media consultant at DFID’s family planning project DAFPAK, led digital strategy for UNICEF for the Clean Green Pakistan initiative and worked as a consultant for the World Bank, among many other senior positions in the media industry.
APP, Pakistan’s state news agency, reported on February 4 that the Economic Coordination Committee of the cabinet had approved the creation of a new digital media unit in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
“The purpose of the wing would be to effectively counter the fake and libellous news and highlight the development agenda of the government,” the APP said.
The creation of the new digital media unit has raised concerns the government is taking yet another step to curb press freedoms.
Last month, Pakistan’s interior minister said the government planned to introduce new laws to curb coronavirus misinformation on social media platforms in a move that has stoked fears authorities will use the additional powers to suppress criticism of government policies. The government denies this.
The National Command and Operation Center, a top federal body set up to oversee the government’s coronavirus mitigation efforts, has also set up a committee under the chairmanship of the interior minister to prepare a legal framework to help the government deal with “fake news” on social media platforms.
In February, the government approved, and then rolled back, new rules to regulate cyberspace after opponents said they could be used to stifle dissent. Social media companies have also largely shunned obliging to help law enforcement agencies access data and remove online content deemed unlawful.
Last year, the government’s plans to launch specialist media courts also sparked a furious backlash from media and rights advocates amid complaints of growing pressure on broadcasters and newspapers to avoid covering critics of the ruling administration, which the administration denies.
But Ghazali said the new digital wing was only meant to release informative videos and data-driven content to improve Pakistan’s image abroad and counter ‘propaganda’ against the country.
“We need to show the world through digital platforms that Pakistan is a peaceful and peace loving country, and we’ll be doing this to attract foreign tourists and investment,” he said.
Ghazali said his team’s first task would be to create official social media accounts of all government ministries, as only ten to twelve departments currently had a digital presence.
“This is the age of Internet and social media, so we have to boost our presence to connect with the public,” he said, adding: “We won’t be working for ministers or any government functionary, instead our role is to strengthen the overall digital media presence of the state.”
Nighat Dad, executive director of the Digital Rights Foundation, said it would be a challenge for the new digital media unit to be an impartial body that provided reliable news and didn’t push the government’s agenda.
“Its [the wing’s] TORs [terms of reference] should be made public as people deserve to know what their mandate is and what they are doing,” she said. “The officials of the digital media wing should be neutral, transparent and there must be an independent accountability system, so taxpayers money is not squandered.”

Thumbs-up: Pakistani woman defies risks to hitchhike across the country

Updated 14 September 2020

Thumbs-up: Pakistani woman defies risks to hitchhike across the country

  • Leaving corporate security behind, Maria Soomro has traveled solo around the country since the pandemic began
  • She documents her travels and uses YouTube and Instagram to provide tips on how to solo travel as a woman

RAWALPINDI: A few months ago, while doing a stable job in the banking sector, Maria Soomro decided to act on her gut instinct and leave behind the monotony and routine of her daily life to follow her dream of hitchhiking around Pakistan. 

30-year-old Soomro hails from Karachi and has been working in the banking sector since completing her university education. The corporate job gave her 40 days of annual leave which she utilized for travel, though she felt that something was missing. 

“I wasn’t fully able to immerse myself in enjoyment or the experience,” she told Arab News over the phone while traveling through Gilgit-Baltistan. “When I travel, I go to remote villages, off-the-beaten-path type places and get to know the locals, actually spend some time understanding where I am and who I am surrounded by. Five or 15 days don’t allow for that.” 

The idea of spending time doing what she loved as opposed to sitting at a desk kicked Soomro into high-gear. “I opted to turn the documenting of my travels, which I had been doing since 2015 on Instagram (@MariaSoomro_) and eponymous YouTube channel, into my full-time job.” 

Maria Soomro smiles for the camera in a ride she hitched near Burzil Pass, part of the historic caravan route between Srinagar and Gilgit on her Instagram page on September 11, 2020. (Picture courtesy of Maria Soomro) 

In March of this year, Soomro headed out on her hitchhiking journey. Being a solo female traveler in Pakistan is a steadily growing trend, though a woman who hitchhikes is almost unheard of.

 “Budget traveling is my focus. The largest chunk of your budget ends up being spent on accommodation and transportation, and both of these things can be covered when you’re hitchhiking,” said Soomro. 

But her travel ethos is another reason hitchhiking was so attractive. To her, there is no better way than this to know the places one is traveling through. 

“This is a shortcut to get to know local communities, be it Pakistan or another country. When you ask for a lift, you get a special introduction to their home, their points of view, and you learn from them,” she said, adding that one can build contacts as a bonus who can be assets to solo travelers. 

Soomro estimates that her hitchhiking adventure has allowed her to meet over 300 people, all of whom, she maintains, contact through social media. “The more people you meet the more stories you hear and the more people you can share your own story with,” said she. 

Maria Soomro shares tips and tricks on solo travel including how to keep one's tent from blowing away in a shot she shares from Golden Beach, Balochistan, on her Instagram page on June 14, 2020. (Picture courtesy of Maria Soomro) 

Instead of merely asking for a lift, Soomro has taken each ride as an opportunity to educate on what hitchhiking is, why she is doing it, and why she is traveling Pakistan. 

“It’s not very common here and I want to change that. The general consensus is that Pakistan is not safe, in particular for women, to travel alone.” 

When asked about how safe she has felt while traveling, Soomro said she follows “her gut instinct, assessing each ride” but also stressed the importance of “being prepared,” such as carrying personal protection equipment like pepper spray and knife. 

“My advice to Pakistanis who want to follow into my footsteps would be to take time to understand this kind of travel first and do not go straight for hitching,” she said. “Travel in groups and learn the areas you want to visit, know how roads work and, like any other passion, take time to educate yourself.” 

Soomro is doing her part in educating travel hopefuls on her YouTube channel and Instagram page with tips on how to hitchhike, where to go, and how to pitch a tent to withstand winds and what type of rides to expect around the country at present. 

“There are very few people who follow their passion in the world, and I am one of those crazy people since I thought I could do it,” said Soomro. “I am a free bird and travel is a part of me. I can’t imagine my life without this.”