Screen blues

Censorship and economic slowdown not the only reasons for downturn

You are going to bring about a revolution in the media industry of Pakistan,” Richard Goslan, an American broadcast trainer, had said during a three-month training ahead of the launch of Pakistan’s first private-sector news channel, Geo News, in 2002. Many of the participants of that training were not ready to believe that it was actually going to happen. Everybody was, however, excited about their role in the new medium that was being introduced in Pakistan. For print media journalists, it was a novel experience. There were so many questions put to the trainers. How would they report data-based stories? How would they cover press conferences and seminars on television? What would be the format of business stories? What was the importance of an interview for television?

Geo News was launched on August 14, 2002, just ahead of the October 10 general elections. Cable operators were all set to steal the frequency info which had been kept a ‘secret’ by the management during the test transmission. It took the whole country by storm. The people of Pakistan experienced a new way of watching election transmission. Politicians were delighted to see themselves on TV campaigning for the elections. Top politicians, especially those in the opposition, would wait for TV channel crews to come so that they could start their press briefings. Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the then Jamaat-i-Islami chief told reporters that he never thought a news channel would ever give him air time as the state-run Pakistan Television (PTV) had never shown any opposition leader addressing the masses. The people of Pakistan started to watch independent analysts on TV, protest rallies, bomb blast coverage, teargas shelling and baton-charge scenes besides the coverage of problems people would face every day. The electronic media became the voice of the people. Things started to change in favour of the masses as they became more aware about the issues that would previously be hushed up.

A host of other private channels including ARY News, Aaj News, Express News, Dunya News, Dawn News, Samaa TV, etc were launched after Geo. The competitive environment helped viewers engage with and hold diverse opinions. Although the military dictator, then president Pervez Musharraf, had granted licences to private channels, he would himself banned all the news channels when he declared a state of emergency on November 3, 2007. It was done through cable operators who switched off all news channels from television screens following an order by state authorities. Some of the news channels succumbed to the state pressure and agreed to meet the government demands. Geo News remained off air until February 18, 2008 when the general elections were held.

The broadcast media business was thriving until 2018. A mushrooming growth of the private sector television channels in the country increased the number to 136. According to an estimate, the annual advertisement budget rose to Rs 87 billion. A government agency valued the investment at over four billion dollars in the media industry between 2002 and 2017. Thousands of journalists and over 200,000 other workers got jobs as wealthy businessmen and media house owners poured in money sometimes seeking influence to protect their other businesses. Hundreds of media schools opened all over the country where now over 400,000 students are enrolled in media studies departments.

Then came a downturn. The April 19, 2014 incident, in which journalist Hamid Mir was shot at, is believed to be the turning point for the media industry in Pakistan, when by extension the largest media network of Pakistan, Geo News, came under attack. The channel was forced off air in major parts of the country and its revenues fell drastically. Amid the financial crunch, the media started facing hidden curbs from the state during the 126-day dharna by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). Journalists not complying with the ‘national narrative’ faced tremendous pressures or were forced to leave. Many of them never got the jobs again. Meanwhile, several current affairs anchors, or what the industry calls ‘parachutes’, who blindly supported the state narrative, were rewarded one way or the other. Certain quarters exploited the mainstream media to spread ‘fake news’ resulting in a loss of credibility.

As soon as the PTI government took over in 2018, it stopped the payment of arrears running into billions of rupees due to major news channels, and cut the government advertisement by around 80 percent. The economic slowdown, too, started hitting the media industry. Over 3,000 media workers have lost jobs while a few channels, including Waqt TV, have been shut down. Almost all media outlets have slashed the number of workers and many have implemented up to 40 percent pay cuts.

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) has become more of a ‘content regulator’, where frivolous complaints about content against ‘national interest’ are entertained for regular hearing. Most of the complaints come from certain lawyers or persons having connections with the powers-that-be. A lawyer from Lahore is known for filing such complaints with the PEMRA asking the regulator to take action or to stop news channels from airing stories regarding a particular issue. An urgent advice was recently issued by the PEMRA directing all news channels to refrain from showing the student march on The Mall in Lahore. Those who aired it were summoned to explain why they had violated the direction.

The media ‘revolution’ is over. This is the buzz in the market. Censorship and economic slowdown are not the only reasons for the electronic media downturn. The digital media is the biggest challenge the traditional media will have to face. During the very early days of PTI government, Fawad Chaudhry, the then-information minister, advised electronic media owners to revisit their business model. He said the digital media will be taking over traditional broadcast media. Amid the economic slowdown, the advertisement budgets have now been slashed not only for print or television media but also for the digital media. He had rightly said that the business model needs to change and media owners will have to look into the future of media to survive. The government itself has to chalk out a strategy to devise media courses in accordance with the future needs.

The journalist fraternity is faced with enormous challenges of fighting censorship, honing their technological skills and looking for an international market to sell the content consumed in the digital era. The genie of digital media is out of the bottle, and it is now for the journalists of Pakistan to learn to cater to the needs of the Generation Z.

The writer is a broadcast journalist and has worked with several news channels in Pakistan. He is currently associated with Samaa TV.

Pakistani media crisis: Censorship and economic slowdown not the only reasons for downturn