It has been an eventfully torrid new millennium so far for the media sector in Pakistan, which has grown enormously in terms of scale and influence. From virtually a staid state-owned broadcast sector at the turn of the century, the sector has morphed into a cacophonous landscape of dozens of independent news and entertainment channels that frenetically vie for public attention. This transformation has been aided partly by a changing socio-political demographic and partly by the integration of newer technologies in the information landscape, which have upended how people access information and morphed news cycles into a real-time, 24/7 process. The newsrooms now never sleep.
And yet, even as choices have bloomed in terms of variety, quantity and quality of informational fare on offer, the media in Pakistan today is in a multifarious crisis of major proportions. Much less loved today than it was a decade ago at its peak of popularity, when it flexed its muscle to help political forces to hound out a military dictator from power, needled democratic governments on governance and championed a Naya Pakistan when it still sparkled in popular imagination and literally helped Imran Khan into power, it is now mired in a crisis of credibility. The media seems to have lost its missionary zeal to report a changing Pakistan. Just like the rise of multi-channel current affairs television sidelined print media about 20 years ago, the rise of the internet and the ubiquity of social media — popular among a largely adult but mostly young population in Pakistan — has overtaken TV as one of the key sources of news and information. This is upending traditional media markets and threatening jobs in mainstream media enterprises and shaking up existing media business models.
Steadily growing manipulation of the media by a coarsening regulatory regime, driven by political compulsions of the deep state, is robbing the media of its integrity and, hence, audiences and influence. A tottering economy is the bitter icing on this crumbling cake. The valour and vivaciousness that characterised the media’s ability to influence independent news’ agendas is gone and its voice is stuttering. Despondency among media practitioners — and even owners — reigns as censorship increases by the day, fear stains the proverbial newsprint and huge question marks hover over the media landscape about whether Pakistan’s media ‘revolution’ — for whatever it was perceived to be — is over. From a ‘player’ it is becoming an ‘observer’ in the state’s structure. Sustainability of the media is severely threatened in the current bust phase of its business cycle and, with it, the ability of the plural and diverse Pakistan to conduct a decent dialogue with itself.
How did the Pakistani media get here and what will happen next?
Is the issue as simple as the government withdrawing undue favours to a media used to living off taxpayer money, as some would have you believe? Or are state attempts to curtail the media to blame? Eos offers a primer on why the media feels under siege
Opinions and inputs in the following detailed examination of this subject come from research and in-depth conversations with several media owners, managers and senior journalists at key media houses including Dawn, Geo, The News, The Express Tribune and Dunya; digital media Dawn.com, Sujag and Humsub; media industry executives, leaderships of key unions of journalists and press clubs in Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta as well as media development experts and activists.
Media and money: the market crisis
The media is no longer making the money it did a few years ago, according to media owners and managers. The slide began even before the Nawaz Sharif government eventually gave way to the Imran Khan dispensation after the 2018 elections. At the end of 2018, a total of 88 TV channels (including news and entertainment channels) and 209 radio stations were licensed, according to the Annual Report 2018 of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra). In early 2019, Pemra licensed another 48 channels, including 14 news channels, taking the overall number to 136. Afzal Butt, the president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), says the number of journalists ballooned from about 2,000 in 2019 to over 20,000 and the overall number of people associated with the media industry to about 250,000. This expansion in the size of the media industry came off the back of improving economic fundamentals, an increase in per capita income and a rise in the consumer economy with growing surpluses in private incomes accompanied by an expanding advertising sector.
But how much money flows within the Pakistan’s media sector?
Media market information is hard to get but the official news agency Associated Press of Pakistan (APP) reported in 2017 that there has been a cumulative investment of four billion dollars in the electronic media industry in Pakistan between 2002 and 2017 and was estimated to touch five billion dollars by the end of 2018. It said the overall national growth contributed significantly to the development of the electronic media industry in the private sector and helped expand the work of media groups, content production houses and advertising agencies.
However, the second half of 2018 brought bad tidings. Pakistan’s media industry, once viewed as among the most vibrant in South Asia, started contracting with up to 3,000 journalists and media workers laid off, claims Butt of PFUJ speaking to Eos last week. Several outlets shut down, such as Waqt TV and the bureau offices of several TV and print media outlets in Peshawar, Quetta and Multan. Partly affected by the outcome of the July 2018 elections — that brought to power a party not seen as friendly to business — and partly affected by an ailing economy coupled with the withdrawal of government subsidies and dwindling advertising revenue, even big and stable media groups were forced to shutter their publications and sack journalists.
The Jang Group — the country’s largest media group — shut down three of its publications and two bureau offices, leaving more than 900 journalists and related staff jobless in one single day. The Express Media Group and Dunya Media Group also reportedly laid off over 200 journalists, apart from cutting the salaries of the remaining workers by 15 to 35 percent in recent months. Pay cuts are rife now and even traditionally steady employers such as the Dawn Media Group induced pay cuts. Herald, an icon of Pakistani journalism, has just produced its last edition.
Iqbal Khattak, the executive director of Freedom Network, a Pakistani media rights watchdog, says the previous media boom had benefited a certain class of journalists, mainly TV hosts, who earned huge salaries and attracted thousands of young people to the profession of journalism. Dozens of universities established media science departments since 2005 to cope with the needs of the then-booming media industry. But currently, only a few channels manage to pay salaries on time — so much so that the largest channel, Geo TV, now often runs in arrears for several months in payment of salaries to its staff, shifting the blame to the curtailment of government and private advertising. In 2019, the media industry is looking definitively shaky.
While the country has a big consumer base and annual media advertisement spread in 2017-18 was Rs 81.6 billion, the TV market is mostly bankrolled by the private sector. “This theoretically allows the TV news media to adopt and pursue relatively independent journalism, as demonstrated over the last few years, through oftentimes scathing critique of various governments,” says Khattak. The government, for a time, served as one of the largest advertisers in the top 10 ad-spends of TV media. “Pakistan’s print media sector, however, has traditionally been majorly dependent on government advertising and, since 2016, has seen the federal government as its biggest advertiser,” adds Khattak, saying that things are now changing considering the rising censorship.
Dozens of universities established media science departments since 2005 to cope with the needs of the then-booming media industry.
The crisis hurting the print media in particular has three elements to it: a) The global decline of the print media and migration of advertising to other formats, mainly TV in Pakistan’s case; b) The combination of this with an overall economic downturn in Pakistan and; c) A rapid rise in censorship and an environment of curtailment in Pakistan, which is turning the screws on an already beleagured sector.
While the print media continues to adopt a hardline stance against governments, its news reporting, in general, is not equally independent — perhaps reflecting the over-dependence on government advertising. Things have, however, been changing since the elections in July 2018 brought the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party to power, which has shown hostility in its dealings with all media: it has heavily slashed government ad-spends — former Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry admitted so in many press conferences — forcing the media to cut jobs while some TV channels and newspapers have even been shut down. However, the digital media in Pakistan is not supported by the government and, therefore, exhibits a relatively independent streak in its editorial positions, sustained as it is by the private sector rather than the public sector.
Over the course of 2016 to 2018, Pakistan’s overall advertisement spending on media has shown a declining trend. This was even true for digital media against the general perception that audiences and markets are migrating online. The total latest annual media advertising market in Pakistan — which included TV, print, radio, digital, out-of-home and cinema categories — showed a seven percent decrease from the preceding fiscal year, according to quarterly Aurora magazine’s print edition issued in the last quarter of 2018.
Muzzled muse: the censorship crisis
A big part of what’s killing independent media is censorship with a vengeance. Pakistan’s chequered political history of long stretches of martial law, the subjugation of representative governments by the deep state, and a brutal domination of the media landscape ownership for most part of the country’s existence almost ensures that media independence has been mostly fiction. The government has for long been a big advertising client for the media. Money is often used as a censorship tool that brings short-term gains for corporate media but dilutes its relationship with media consumers, contributing to the crisis slowly killing off the media. Especially since broadcast liberalisation in 2002, the state has remained one of the most important sources of funding for Pakistan’s private media sector, as for both broadcasting and the printing press in Pakistan, government advertisements have historically acted as the backbone of their finances. The federal and provincial governments have often bought airtime on leading TV channels during primetime hours, subsidising their financial operations.
Similarly, governments have also traditionally subsidised operations of leading newspapers by providing them with advertisement revenues. The advertising market size in Pakistan grew from Rs 66.9 billion in 2014-15 to Rs 87.7 billion in 2016-17. In August 2018, the Senate was informed that the government provided advertisements worth Rs 15.7 billion to print and electronic media from 2013 to 2017. This money clearly buys influence. But so does a slash in government advertising, say media managers. After the July 2018 elections, the provincial governments of Punjab and Sindh — the main contributors of advertisement revenues for the print and electronic media — and the federal government in Islamabad, have slashed their advertisement budgets by 70 percent, leaving the media industry in a bad financial situation.
Industry sources say this crisis does not come out of the blue but, over the better part of this decade, the newspaper industry in Pakistan has recorded an estimated 15 percent to 20 percent decrease in sales despite the emergence of new titles as non-legacy media groups have brought out newspapers. A major chunk of the print media market in Pakistan comprises Urdu-language newspapers while the market for English-language newspaper is small by comparison. Since 2010, mid-ranking newspapers have undergone a substantial reduction in advertisement revenues forcing the lay-off of hundreds of staff.
Because of the declining readership of English-language newspapers, telecom companies are diverting their remaining ad-spends to Urdu-language TV channels. This also explains the closure of two English-language news channels since 2015. Although Dawn TV (English) and Express 24/7 (English) belonged to two of the largest media houses in Pakistan, they were forced to shutter them following a decline in average earnings per channels as the number of TV channels ballooned.
But a stuttering economy and declining money flows alone do not explain the media’s financial crisis, says Aftab Alam, the executive director of the Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development (IRADA), which campaigns for civil liberties. “The crisis is closely entwined with politics. The collapsing media economy is in a key part also the result of the overall shrinking space for media being engineered as part of the censorship of political dissent,” he says. All of the editors, media managers and senior journalists consulted for this analysis agreed with this assessment, asserting that one of the key characteristics of Imran Khan government’s first year in power is the continual suppression of media, the intimidation of journalists, the shutting down of TV channels, restrictions on live coverage of opposition leaders, crackdowns on online freedom of expression and the use of procedural mechanisms — such as the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) and Pemra — to impose widespread censorship. They feel this is in aid of effecting a growing hush that includes silencing political discourse of all kinds. All this is being done with the outright support, if not encouragement, of the powers-that-be currently busy with aggressive manipulation of the political landscape.
“The media industry is collapsing not just because the money is being squeezed from government coffers but because the media legal regulatory regime, already not very supportive of media independence, is being used to muzzle the media,” says Alam. He points out the government’s attempt to extend its coercive and punitive reach to online spaces by floating the idea to merge online regulation with the print and media regulators into a single Big Brother-type Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA). He laments that Pemra has consciously chosen to become more of a media content regulator than a media industry regulator. This partly explains how, in July 2019 alone, over two dozen news TV channels were officially censured for airing opposition leader Maryam Nawaz’s press conference about an accountability judge. Additionally, three TV channels were taken off air for the same ‘crime’ while two separate channels were forced to take off-air interviews of Asif Zardari and Maryam Nawaz. Most of Bilawal Bhutto’s public engagements are never shown on TV while the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement’s public activities are completely censored.
The federal and provincial governments have often bought airtime on leading TV channels during primetime hours, subsidising their financial operations.
“The current laws governing market competition in the media sector are insufficient in ensuring fair-market practices,” says Alam. “There is an absence of a modern regulatory framework that adequately covers aspects such as audience share, circulation, revenue, distribution of share capital or voting rights, etc. Similarly, due to the absence of a comprehensive framework to ensure network neutrality, the state is blocking ‘undesired’ content online, banning ‘inappropriate’ websites and shutting down the network arbitrarily in the guise of security.”
Failing businesses: the technology crisis
Many journalists in Pakistan now think that the business model of ownership being concentrated in the hands of a sole investor or single family has failed. The implications have not just been restricted to closure of business but also to the fate of quality of journalism and journalists and the rise of censorship. Failing financials have forced media owners and managements to cave in to rising pressure from the state machinery, including not just the political government but also the security establishment — both of which are losing their appetite for criticism of their policies by a freewheeling media. The falling advertisement revenues are matched by many of the finest journalists and talk shows being subdued or downright silenced. The financial squeeze of a few key media titles has had a ripple effect, especially since 2018. Most of the remaining media has become significantly less critical of government authorities compared to the past few years.
Why are Pakistani media outlets clinging to old models of information and news cycles, ignoring changing consumer behaviours and the fact that people are migrating online in droves for information and news?
According to Asad Baig, the founder and director of Media Matters for Democracy, a media rights and technology advocacy organisation, Pakistan is perhaps the only country in this region that is still largely using a decades-old TV distribution system referred to as ‘analog’; elsewhere it is being rendered obsolete because it makes use of the traditional linear transmission system through analog signals. Baig says digital services that would allow content producers (broadcasters in this case) to generate revenue through subscription or pay per view aren’t possible. Meanwhile, ‘Over-The-Top’ content providers that distribute streaming media as a stand-alone product directly to viewers over the internet, bypass telecommunications, multichannel television, and broadcast television platforms that traditionally act as a controller or distributor of such content.
Sadly, broadcasters in Pakistan are complicit in actively pushing back on direct-to-home (DTH). Partly because of this, the focus and investment on digital mediums in the mainstream TV news industry remains low.
How can technology save journalism in Pakistan? What must change with Pakistani journalists, in general, and newsrooms in particular, for this to happen?
“Digital innovation is imperative, or we perish,” says Baig. “‘Digital’ is still a term not part of the ‘mainstream’ in Pakistan and journalists practicing digital journalism aren’t considered ‘real journalists’. This attitude must change. Sadly, a substantial majority of journalists in Pakistan still feel thinking about media sustainability isn’t their job. This allows the sales team to usurp this job, while content producers, i.e., journalists, have to follow their demands in shaping content. Digital innovation should be given centre-stage in the newsroom. Currently, many in the newsrooms assume that having an official YouTube channel, or a dedicated Twitter account for ‘breaking news’ is innovative enough. We need to broaden the understanding of digital.”
The real ‘digital challenge’ for the media in Pakistan is how the broader crisis eating away at the industry — a combination of eroding credibility, a changing market and outdated information and media policies — can be addressed. There is a need to prioritise reforms to media policies that strengthen and build the media as an industry, as opposed to focusing narrowly on content regulation and content take-down.
The change in the global market is affecting everyone and, unlike traditional imports, consumption of global media is only going up — which means that Pakistan is losing local viewership. The only way to balance this out is to increase the footprint of local content, and enable the ‘digital’ generation of content producers by giving them a level-playing field. The internet is a truly global medium, and with content-creators of the world creating extremely high-quality content for digital platforms, the consumers in Pakistan are bound to go that way, says Baig. “For instance, a large portion of digital ad revenue in Pakistan is going towards platforms such as YouTube and Facebook, but how many content producers in Pakistan are actually getting monetised through these platforms? Unless we balance out this revenue-bleeding, we cannot cash upon the digital media growth in Pakistan,” he says.
While the future of the media in Pakistan is digital, the reality of digital in Pakistan is bitter. It is reflected in the massive decline of advertising revenue from it. While advertisers have cottoned on to the fact that, with such low internet penetration — less than 20 percent after two decades — and low literacy levels, digital critical mass-proximity is nowhere near in the future. Even some of the success stories of big digital media portals such as Dawn.com are subsidised by revenue and content from the print operations of the Dawn Media Group at the moment. There is also the danger that digital is more prone to censorship — not just foreign media, such as websites from India, are blocked but digital media platforms from Balochistan are routinely blocked by the telecom regulator PTA. Nothing highlights this better than a Canadian journalist in London last week calling out Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi for Pakistan censoring his tweets in Canada.
The work of Pakistani media practitioners and their employers is cut out for them. They have to go where the technology — and money — is, and that is where sustainability lies. But censorship will have to be battled in a concerted fight by the media and the political classes with the real censors. If Pakistani media is not to be swamped completely by the current endemic, this is the road to take. It needs to come out of its comfort zone.