Islamabad is extending media regulations and censorship to the digital realm, while mainstream news organizations have yet to find sustainable ways to use new opportunities for freedom of speech.
The lack of viable monetization models are a barrier to digital journalism, leading to a mdoerate level of digital participation for media and journalism in Pakistan
— There is little diversity of platforms and perspectives in Pakistani media and journalism
— Digital and traditional media share similar content and increasingly similar types of regulation
— Journalism initiatives by citizens are limited in scope and viability
— There are no sustainable business models for a transition to online journalism
Pakistan’s television-dominated media industry is on the brink of a digital transition but is being held back by a lack of sustainable business models for investigative or citizen journalism online, that would allow for a greater diversity of voices and opinions. The country’s digital landscape has remained largely unregulated so far: New laws may end hate speech, defamation and harassment online — but they may also lead to more state censorship and control, impacting dissenting or marginalized voices.
The digital media landscape is dominated by major national television broadcasters and news publishers. They make use of popular Internet platforms such as Facebook, with 33 million reported users, as well as, to a lesser extent, Twitter and WhatsApp. Citizen journalism initiatives are rare, resulting in a lack of representation for marginalized voices. "There is barely any content representing women, minorities, and people speaking local languages," says Jahanzaib Haque, chief digital strategist and editor at the Dawn media group. He says up to 90 percent of visitors to news websites and 70 percent of people on Facebook are male.
Audiences who can read English have more options and opportunities, Haque said. "There is an urban-rural divide as well," says Asad Baig, founder and executive editor of Media Matters for Democracy. With their television audience concentrated in larger cities, news organizations report very little local news, especially from areas where access is difficult and the audience is of little interest to advertisers. Journalist groups have little female or minority representation, says Zebunnisa Burki, deputy editor Op-Ed at the News. "Women are no doubt under-represented in press clubs and unions." New social media platforms, specifically Twitter, have incorporated a feedback mechanism that allows some semblance of a dialogue between journalists and citizens.
State and self-censorship
Except in the case of traditional newspapers, which largely follow accuracy and fairness standards and have taken to publishing their print content online, the quality of media content is mostly poor. This is especially true for content produced for the Urdu-speaking market, Haque said. Since most of the online content produced by the major media houses originates from print and television, they’re missing an opportunity to reach out to new audiences. However, it also means their digital content follows the same editorial standards as television and print.
This also means that digital content is affected by the same kind of censorship seen in traditional media, said Raza Rumi, editor at the Daily Times and founder of the new independent news platform, Naya Daur. Journalists are also prone to being targeted by Pakistan’s vague electronic crimes law. Rights groups also remain apprehensive after the government proposed a new regulatory body for all media, including digital. In 2017, independent bloggers were abducted and tortured after a life-threatening social media campaign falsely accusing them of blasphemy. "There was a time when the Internet was unregulated, and you could talk about everything. It is not that easy any longer," said Haque.
Despite these concerns, Zebunnisa Burki sees a huge potential in the field of digital journalism. "Independent V-logs, blogs and media startups are trying to make their voices heard. They pick up smaller stories that might not seem that important in Pakistan’s political chaos. And within today’s censorship issues I am not sure how much they will be able to push as far as content is concerned."
No viable monetization models available
There are, however, doubts about their long-term sustainability in the absence of viable monetization methods, said Asad Baig, adding that journalist unions do not recognize independent reporters. Projects are often funded or carried out by activist organizations. In the absence of citizen journalism, blogging is limited to opinion and analyses, Haque said, with successful bloggers eventually joining large media organizations as columnists. "Community initiatives by citizens can play a key role in setting a people-friendly progressive and pluralistic news agenda," says Rumi, who runs one such multilingual initiative.
With only one state-run public broadcaster that is often used as a propaganda tool by the government, the demand for private news channels is high in Pakistan. But their business models largely depend on advertising by various government departments, Haque says. With the new government in Islamabad withdrawing advertising campaigns to save money, some predict adoomsday scenario for the country’s media industry. But according to Asad Baig, many owners of media outlets are not in the business to make a profit. Rather, these businessmen want more influence and are ready to spend money and use their news machinery to increase their personal clout. Because of this, such outlets are, at times, unprofessional, and also engage in censorship. Baig sums up the contradictions of Pakistan’s media industry as follows: "Pakistani media outlets are simultaneously fiercely independent and not independent at all."
What experts say
Zebunnisa Burki, deputy editor, Op-Ed, at The News on digital journalism:
"A lot of new independent startups and news websites have news instinct for the story but, they don’t have the tools that are required for a digital story. They haven’t been trained in mobile journalism and digital data journalism."
Jahanzaib Haque, editor and digital strategist at the Dawn media group, on freedom of media in Pakistan:
"Pakistani media is not free. There is overwhelming pressure from state and non-state actors, and corporate interests. That is reflected in the digital space as well."
Asad Baig, founder and executive editor at Media Matters for Democracy, on the digital transition:
"The kind of factors that negatively impacted independent reporting in traditional media – business, politics, the government – also hurt media freedom online. There is nothing new."
Raza Rumi, editor at the Daily Times and founder and executive editor at Naya Daur, on the future of journalism in Pakistan:
"The sustainable future of journalism in Pakistan is all about civic initiatives by journalists and citizens, running on volunteer contributors as well as small donations by users."
— Citizen initiatives
Amid doubts as to large media organizations’ interest in sustainability and as to their business plans’ dependence on the representation of a diversity of voices, our experts say viable independent initiatives by citizens are the way forward. "If citizens and trusted reporters and editors set the news agenda, it will be a matter of who gets it right, and not who gets it first," says Raza Rumi. "Such a scenario will also allow a variety of perspectives and opinions, including those of the marginalized."
— Media viability
The experts stressed the need for more research and investment in finding new and sustainable ways of doing journalism online. Raza Rumi said universities and the government should invest in such initiatives because the future of Pakistani journalism will determine the future of Pakistani politics and society. Jahanzaib Haque believes media organizations should also invest in innovation, because their own viability depends on acknowledging the changing media landscape in Pakistan.
— Quality and scope of journalism
For citizens to pay for news online, independent journalists and media groups need to make a serious effort towards improving the quality of the content they produce. According to Asad Baig, this includes broadening the scope of content to address people who may not be the primary audience for print and television, but have access to the Internet and are underrepresented.
The #speakup barometer is a DW Akademie project that examines the connection between digital participation, freedom of expression and access to information. Learn more at www.dw.com/barometer
Pakistan’s lack of e-commerce infrastructure means its vast potential for digital participation initiatives is going untapped. (25.03.2019)
Higher taxes pose a challenge to digital participation in Pakistan. Beyond a long-term denial of service in marginalized areas, authorities also disable mobile access during times of political or religious sensitivity. (27.03.2019)
Broad legal limitations on free speech on the Internet are applied without transparency or oversight. Data protection and right to information laws are a work in progress. (27.03.2019)
Low digital literacy, a crackdown on dissent, and Internet laws that pander to bigotry leave Pakistan’s much loved political debates to take place offline. (27.03.2019)