Pakistan’s media is facing unprecedented challenges in terms of both financial viability and censorship, as the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf
— Movement for Justice — government, which came to power in 2018 on promises of reform, tries to break the media status quo.
In the name of fighting corruption, Prime Minister Imran Khan has accused previous governments of awarding advertising contracts based on favoritism, and withheld payments worth billions of rupees for official advertisements already printed and aired.
A drastic reduction in the overall volume of government advertising has forced media groups that rely heavily on state funding to cut jobs and salaries.
In October 2018, at a newspaper where I was working, many reporters were fired and
the Islamabad bureau was shut. The paper’s editor, clearly distressed by the publisher’s decisions, contemplated quitting but said he was in no position to fight a deeply flawed system.
Government curbs on official advertising have widened the disparity between electronic and print media. Pakistan’s electronic media regulator has issued 105 licenses for private satellite TV channels since
it was formed in 2002, and a large chunk of their earnings come from corporate advertising.
Pakistan’s nearly 350 print publications
— including those with an online presence — largely depend on display and classified advertising from the government. There is also a huge gulf between the high salaries earned by television news anchors and the low wages for print and online journalists.
Yes, previous administrations have exploited print’s dependence on state funds, with advertising contracts often awarded to government cronies,
and in some cases the owners of “dummy” newspapers, with no actual readership, managed to win contracts.
But the current attempts
to fix the system have created another set of problems, with many outlets accusing the government of acting at the behest of the powerful military to make journalists fall in line.
This has hurt credible journalism, with newspapers preferring to hire sub-editors who can churn out curated clickbait more attractive to online advertisers, while cutting back on investigative, long-form storytelling.
The ensuing financial pressure has led to self-censorship. Warned of the consequences, most newspapers have been unable to take an independent editorial
line as “unofficial” government press advisories are sent to reporters, editors and news directors by WhatsApp messages or over the phone.
Other curbs on press freedoms include the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act passed in 2016, which provides tough online content regulations clearly designed to tighten censorship.
Failure to comply can lead to questionable charges or being taken for “a trip to the northern areas” — a euphemism for torture by Pakistan’s security agencies. According to the Freedom
Network, a local media watchdog, 27 journalists in Pakistan were arrested and charged in 2020, including eight under the cybercrime laws.
September, journalist Bilal Farooqi was arrested in Karachi as a result of a “complaint” that he had ridiculed the country’s armed forces in a tweet. He was released on bail a few hours later only after his colleagues protested on Twitter,
showing that at least social media pressure can work, particularly in cases where the motive is just to intimidate.