Celebrated media personality, Ihtasham-ul-Haque is the only journalist to have won four consecutive APNS Awards and the second Pakistani journalist to have been awarded the prestigious Dag Hammarskjold scholarship. Renowned as one of the most credible sources on economic reporting, he has won numerous awards, both nationally and internationally. He is currently working as the senior news analyst at Samaa and CNBC in addition to being a regular columnist for several leading newspapers in Pakistan and Japan. Speaking to Sana Ahmad of Blue Chip magazine, Ihtasham-ul-Haque shares his insights on the challenges facing Pakistan’s economy and reflects on his illustrious career.
On November 11 2013, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar stated in an interview that Pakistan would soon become the 11th biggest economy.” What are your views on this optimistic outlook? What are your views on Pakistan’s recent upgrade by international ratings agencies?
Ihtasham-ul-Haque: “There are a couple of parameters that illustrate the status of an economy. First is our fiscal deficit is increasing day by day. Even though the government has set a target to limit the deficit to 5.5%, the predictions of analysts say that it might end up at 8% – and 8% fiscal deficit means a whole lot of problems. Secondly, our public debt is continuously increasing. During Zardari’s five-year regime, the government secured a public debt of Rs 12 trillion, which was Rs 6 trillion higher than when they first assumed power. As you must have heard, fiscal deficit is called the mother of all economic ills and the government has not been able to contain it as yet. This is why the people are accusing the government and the IMF for finalising a deal that is putting an extra burden on the economy. The government has preferred growth over reforms and as a result, this agreement with the IMF will only end up increasing poverty and unemployment in the long-term. However, I do believe that the government did not have any option but to seek the IMF loan programme since Pakistan would have defaulted otherwise.
So all in all I would say that one good thing they did achieve is the IMF loan programme otherwise by now Pakistan would have defaulted. Furthermore, due to the association with IMF we can hope that rating agencies perhaps would improve our rating as IMF leads pretty much everything on the bilateral and international finances front. The IMF review mission is due to come to Islamabad in December and the second tranche of 550 million dollars will be made then. However, before dispersing this tranche they will go through the performance criteria set by them for Pakistan and only if Pakistan agrees to fulfill the criteria, will they move ahead with the second tranche.”
FBR has set its target for improved revenues at 28% for this fiscal year. What are your views on this?
IH: “I feel like this target actually reflects a period of three years rather than this year. Primarily you are right that the target is 28% but the general perception is that they won’t be able to achieve this target as in the first quarter, there is already a shortfall of Rs 45 billion so there is a very good chance that shortfalls may be witnessed in the coming three quarters as well. The 28% target roughly translates into a Rs 2.6 trillion target.”
What are your views on the possibility of cutting off NATO supply?
IH: “I think everybody right now is pondering over this question and presenting their varying views, but I think our economy is in no position to say no to the NATO supply. Pakistan receives an average payment of $250-$300 dollars for every NATO container that passes through Pakistan and if the NATO supply stops, as a result, our economy will have to shoulder the burden of the significant reduction in the revenue. Secondly, there exists also the fear that as a consequence of stopping NATO supplies, America will ask the IMF to withdraw its support to Pakistan and we know that IMF backing out means almost every other financial institution, credit rating agencies and banks backing out as well. This would result in a horrifying situation that Pakistan might not be able to face and may once more reach the brink of default. I personally think it would be unwise on the government’s part to stop NATO supply unless we can make ourselves economically so strong that we can achieve a position where we can fearlessly say no to anyone. Look at Iran, they have compromised after three decades although it is an oil-rich country but they had to ultimately reach a stage where they agreed to a treaty with the top powers of the world. Our economy is too fragile and our position too weak where we cannot sustain without IMF, World Bank, Asian Development Bank and bilateral aid from the U.S. and UK. It is very important to have unanimity amongst our political figures or as in this case between the KPK and the federal government otherwise it might lead to very drastic consequences.”
The ECC has not yet been able to introduce measures to curb inflation and deferred the issue till their next meeting. Can you elaborate on this?
IH: “Inflation is generally linked to economic growth and government expenditure. The situation right now is such that there is a total freeze on hiring in government departments and the government has seemed hesitant on launching bigger development projects. The objective has become to not spend and in return to contain inflation. This I feel is a very artificial approach because they must spend but before they do, they must increase revenues which encourages new resource mobilisation. I haven’t seen any such resource mobilisation for the past three decades or so. The government, in order to increase its revenue effectively, needs to increase their tax base by finding new tax payers and new sectors that are not being taxed. One such very important sector is our agriculture sector: the agricultural income represents 25% of our GDP that goes untaxed. Furthermore, the services sector, real estate market and stock market need to be taxed as well. It is important for the government to spend on public welfare projects such as developing streets and developing rural areas because the population explosion that our country is facing needs to be paid attention to before it goes out of hand.”
You were invited to attend the recent National Consultation Conference in Islamabad. What are your views on the significance of this conference?
IH: “I couldn’t attend the meeting but the couple of news items and the speeches that I have gone through, I realized that we have been seeing this for the last so many years but to no avail. I think they need to focus more on the basic issues that keep compounding our economy which seem to be getting sidelined. Issues like the widening fiscal deficit, deepening debt, inflation and shortfalls in revenue need to be prioritised. These kinds of issues can only work in a sustainable environment, in a society that is free of vices like extremism, terrorism and bigotry.”
You are one of the most celebrated figures in media today. What drove you towards this career?
IH: “I have worked for the print media for well over 30 years and now I have been working for the electronic media for around five years. I did my Masters in Political Science in 1976 and luckily I had good friends in PTV for whom I started working with before there was any proper service, but it did develop my interest in the field. In 1979, I formally joined Daily Morning News which was one of the major newspapers at that time. I worked there for eight years. Later, I joined Dawn where I worked for well over 22 years. Even though Dawn doesn’t allow their employees to work for anybody else, the owner however luckily allowed me to work at that time for Khaleej Times and later I started working for Tokyo Shimbun, the second largest newspaper in Japan alongside working at PTV, BBC and Mid-East News Agency at various intervals. Around five years ago, I ventured into television with Samaa and CNBC. I had been in print for so long that I wanted to try out the electronic medial. It’s been a great experience here too as I have learnt many new things and realise that it doesn’t work like in a newspaper. In print, you write a good story and people talk about it and remember you for it. However, on TV your item plays for a few seconds and people will quickly forget about it and move on to the next hot story. It is essentially a team effort. But it has been a thrilling experience for me.
Pakistan definitely has given a significant amount of media freedom which I feel is often misused as there hardly seems to be a code of conduct or ethics, there is barely any check of any sort, stories of all kinds surface all the time and I feel that is a drawback sometimes. But then again, it is a new phenomenon. It was after all in 2001, I think, when Geo was launched and then all these other news channels came into being. I think it will take some time to assume some responsibility.
I also feel I have been quite lucky, in the sense, that I am probably the only Pakistani journalist who has won around 12 awards out of which six are national and 12 are international. I won the prestigious Dag Hammarskjold Memorial Scholarship of the United Nations Correspondent Association (UNCA) to cover the UN General Assembly session from September to December 1986 in New York which proved to be my most enriching experience. I then went on to become the first ever Pakistani journalist to win APNS award for four consecutive years (1989 to 1992) for which one was the Scoop of the Year award for my story on the theft of 250 stinger missiles in Afghanistan and won Citibank award for best journalist in 1996 which provided me with an opportunity to attend a 15 day course at Columbia University, New York. In 1994, I won the European Union (EU) award and later another in India and got the opportunity to visit Belgium, France and Italy. I also widely travelled to North America, Europe, Asia and Africa for covering various events. These acknowledgements definitely motivated me to move further and I felt a sense of accomplishment and encouragement. I love this profession.”
In a fiercely competitive electronic media, what are your views on the success of Samaa and CNBC?
IH: “I think Samaa is number two after Geo on the ratings by Media Logic Company and CNBC is number seven which means it is thriving as one of the few business channels in our country. Working here has been a great experience and it has been an honour to be working with Zafar Siddiqui, the owner of Samaa, who has always prioritised a great work relationship with his employees and has maintained a high code of ethics.”
Who have been your role models in your career?
IH: “I guess since I worked the longest at Dawn, I made some valuable connections there especially with Ziauddin and Shaheen Sibai who were a great help and it was an excellent experience working with them. Other than that of course there are some very good people in our profession and you tend to admire them and their work. However, I do feel my greatest inspiration came from the Dag Hammarskjold scholarship which allowed me to meet and be with the top 200 journalists of the world. I was young at that time and had been only six to seven years in my profession so being with all these accomplished journalists was simply exhilarating. Nevertheless, there was a lot of competition amongst them and nobody would let me sit with them or discuss stories but there was one South-African journalist, who even though at first resented my joining him but eventually agreed to help me out when I told him I was new and just wanted to learn from him. He was really supportive and I would often give him my stories for proof-reading and correction. He is no doubt one of the greatest journalists I have ever met and truly a great inspiration. I returned after five months but the whole experience taught me a lot and gave me a better understanding and insight into my profession.”