Petroleum price narrative: Build it, don’t push it

First things first. Understanding of petroleum pricing in the Pakistani mass media at large is amateurish at best. No surprise that the reporting if often devoid of ground realities. There should be no second opinions that the understanding and the subsequent quality of reporting needs to improve drastically. That said, how does this qualify for the electronic media regulator to “request” all TV channels to carry out a “media campaign and narrative of government on petrol prices?”

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) thought it was only fair to issue a notification to all TV channels, telling how “the government being the custodian of public good has kept petrol prices in the country at lowest possible level compare [sic] to many countries in the region and the world”. The absurd, factually incorrect, and poorly drafted Pemra letter then goes on to tell that “oil prices” today are lower in comparison to the previous two governments, and how the facts are not reflected in the national media.

There is plenty wrong with this. It starts with the Ministry of Information’s letter to the regulator, asking its narrative to be carried on TV channels. Pemra is supposed to be an independent body, and should have outrightly declined to entertain, instead of dictating the channels in the name of “request”. Secondly, nothing stops the federal government to launch a full-fledged mass media campaign on how petroleum prices work. It has to its disposal, some taxpayers’ money to run paid campaigns of public interest. There is nothing that stops the authorities from engaging the public on social media platforms as well and tell the real situation. Having Pemra issue a notification is the worst possible route, but they took it.

Now on to what the government through Pemra wants the TV channels to campaign as “facts”. First things first, the petroleum prices today are clearly not lower in comparison to the previous government. In fact, petroleum prices have seen the highest ever levels recorded in Pakistan’s history. While it may be true that petroleum in Pakistan is priced cheaper than a number of countries in the region, but that is not a recent phenomenon, and simply putting it in dollar terms does not mask the fact that the consumers still pay in the local currency – and ground realities in national per capita income terms vary significantly as well.

And then comes the most absurd comparison, which is termed as part of the “fact sheet” that outlines the lowest and highest petroleum prices since 2008. The method weighs lowest and highest rates for the last three government at current dollar rates. For example, the highest petrol price of Rs108/ltr in the PPP tenure is presented as a factor of current dollar rate, resulting Rs180/ltr. Just how is that a justified comparison methodology will be best explained by the Ministry itself.

It must be remembered that the current government has had its fair share of maximizing the tax incidence when the opportunity came, having been a strong opponent while in opposition. There is absolutely nothing wrong in cashing in on the opportunity, but when it attracts criticism, you should not forget you are getting the taste of your own medicine back.

Truth be told, efforts must be put into explaining to the public how petroleum prices work. Spending money for the same will be worth it as well. But it should not be through dictating the media. The government must use the resources at its disposal to spell out the process.

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