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Monday May 20, 2024

Controversial appointments come to light in government’s digital media wing

The DMW is synched with PTI, ministries, departments, lobbyists, academia, lawyers, politicians, private media firms, social media experts and volunteers

By Zahid Gishkori
December 17, 2021
Housed at the Press Information Department (PID), DMW has formal and informal units/offices with operators of around 150 people across the country. File photo
Housed at the Press Information Department (PID), DMW has formal and informal units/offices with operators of around 150 people across the country. File photo

The federal government has spent nearly Rs200 million on its digital media wing (DMW) to manage its operations and official campaigns since this strategic wing was founded in 2019. These figures came to light months after the country’s top auditors raised questions about all key appointments made by the government in the DMW and sought an impartial investigation into the matter.

The DMW, housed at the Press Information Department (PID), acquired Rs42.7 million for its establishment in 2019-20 and then Rs66 million for its operations in 2020-21 and Rs54 million in 2021-2022. The wing also received some extra funds, not yet explained, in small tranches from various government entities during this period.

Geo News gathered these official figures of expenditures linked to the DMW from Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MoIB) and finance as well as the Prime Minister’s Secretariat and the PID. This correspondent, under Right to Information laws, also filed multiple requests with MoIB to provide details of the DMW, its operators, expenditures and salaries of employees. The MoIB did not respond to requests by Geo News and neither did it comply with the order of the Pakistan Information Commission to pass the required information under the RTI laws.

Critics of the government say that the DMW, whose basic job is to build a bridge between the government and public by countering the fake news, is allegedly focusing on those who had failed to serve ‘national interest.’

Questionable appointments

A report compiled by the auditor general of Pakistan has revealed that appointments at the DMW in MP-II scale and MP-III were not made on merit, with the MP Scales Policy 2020 being “grossly violated.”

“Appointments were made after conodonation of the required qualification and experience for the subject posts by the prime minister. No record in support of condonation of the required qualification and experience was provided for verification…audit recommends declaring the above appointments void ab-initio. Audit also recommends fair and impartial investigation for the lapse,” the report says.

The current government ordered a probe into the spending of billions of rupees by the previous government, which had established a Strategic Media Communication Cell (SMCC) headed by Maryam Nawaz Sharif as its de facto in-charge between 2015 and 2018. The committee is probing a case of nearly Rs8.929 billion given in advertisements to various media houses by the previous government.

The current regime has issued Rs3.679 billion to various media houses for its advertisements over the last three years.

The DMW has formal and informal units, with nearly 150 operators across the country, informed officials said. They added the wing had grown twice as much in size and numbers compared to the SMCC. The wing, they claim, has now become a powerful lobbying unit, both in favour of the government as well as against its critics, while consuming taxpayers’ money. The DMW is synched with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), ministries, departments, lobbyists, academia, lawyers, politicians, private media firms, social media experts and volunteers.

According to the advertisements, the federal government hired six people for MP-II and MP-III posts, while other employees hold positions such as social media strategist, researcher, engineer, in-charge photoshop, content developer, digital team member etc.

Dr Arslan Khalid, who is the prime minister’s spokesperson on digital media and who looks after policymaking and public relations on the digital media said, “DMW is presenting Pakistan’s soft and positive image. The hiring process was fair, based on merit and all rules were followed keeping in view the existing policy.”

The then MoIB Senator Shibli Fraz said, “The process was underway when I joined MoIB. All rules and procedures were followed. They fulfilled the established criterion and all selections were done by the board, including the Establishment Division. ‘Polluted criterion’ is a very subjective expression…I stand by my decision.”

When asked about recruitments which according to AGP should be declared void, about allegations about the DMW defaming critics of the government, he said, “I will answer in PAC if it comes to that.”

The MoIB hired the services of Imran Ghazali as the general manager of the DMW at the MP-II pay scale. The position of general manager DMW was advertised with an educational requirement of bachelor’s degree instead of PhD/master’s degree. The audit noted that this unauthorised relaxation resulted in appointment of bachelor degree holders in MP-II and III scale respectively. Five other employees were hired in MP-III pay scale, including Naeem Yasin, Dhanak Hashmi, Shahbaz Khan, Usman bin Zaheer and Muzzamil Hassan in 2020.

The audit team termed these appointments illegal, where the government violated the MP scales policy. The perks and privileges for these MP-II and MP-III scale officers start from around Rs280,000 to Rs4820,000 per month respectively, according to officials.

The cabinet had initially approved a supplementary grant of Rs42.791 million for the creation of the DMW.

A senior official of the government associated with the MoIB disclosed that, “The DMW was approved, along with 23 posts by the PM in December 2019. The criteria for the posts were approved by the prime minister in April 2020. The criteria for hiring on key posts was relaxed by the PM office.”

After hiring these officers, the PM duly approved the selected candidates on July 20, 2020, a month after approval of new MP Scales Policy 2020, the officer revealed.

The new policy required that an MP-II officer must have a minimum age of 40 with a PhD degree in relevant subject(s), with 10 years post qualification experience, or a master’s degree with 14 years post qualification experience in the relevant field. An MP-III officer with a minimum age of 35 years must have a PhD degree with six years professional experience or master’s degree with 10 years’ experience in the relevant field.

Another government official revealed that the recruitment team assessed 461 applications for seven MP scale advertised posts. Over 76 applications were received for the post of GM and 67 for the post of digital media consultants.

The remaining 16 staff positions were also filled soon after these MP scales officers took their charge. They were initially hired against a lump sum package of Rs75,000 at that time.

“The government is spending taxpayers’ money unlawfully on the DMW to spread propaganda and blatant lies to support its narrative. The DMW serves as a state-funded fascist tool to silence as well as slander the political opposition, independent journalists and critics of the regime. The government deployed the DMW to attack domestic opponents but it cannot defend Pakistan against the machinations of our true enemies,” said PML-N leader Khurram Dastgir Khan.