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Pakistani media’s existential crisis

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By Adnan Rehmat


Pakistan’s media has been grappling with an existential crisis in recent years, with critical areas going from bad to worse. This includes a staggering two-fifths of media jobs — 8,000 out of 20,000 — being wiped out, partly because of lifeline public sector advertising having shrunk by over half, and a squeezed media economy that is drying up even private sector advertising.

But recently there has also been one of the most extensive crackdowns on dissent by any Pakistani government this century, with arrests, abductions and torture, and dozens of media practitioners being forced to face legal cases.

Pay cuts and unpaid salaries have been endemic recently, and many journalists critical of the government or the establishment have been forced out of jobs and prevented from being employed anywhere. If this were not enough, there’s also the broader challenge of narrow media ownership concentration, which threatens to kill diversity and pluralism in opinions and perpetuates a steadily uniform narrative that serves state interests more than the public interest.

This is the crux of all that is wrong with Pakistan’s current media landscape, outlined in detail in a refreshing new book, Pakistan Mein Media Ka Bohraan [The Crisis of Media in Pakistan]. It is co-authored by widely respected academics Tauseef Ahmed Khan and Irfan Aziz, both based in Karachi, with decades of journalism and media education between them.

Setting this book apart is its dedicated focus on the crisis of recent years, rather than the oft-seen predisposition towards the historical analysis of decades ago. This book squarely addresses contemporary events and chronologies and what amounts to clear and present dangers hobbling the country’s media that, even in the best-case assumptions, will take years to address, if at all.

Two respected academics’ book about the genesis and nature of the contemporary crisis in the country’s media is a valuable resource for journalists

And therein lies the significance of this resource — a book-length study of the nature and genesis of the contemporary crisis enveloping the media. This should be a priority resource for all journalists who have joined the industry in recent years as well as those who intend to in the next few years, as all this will deeply impact their careers.

Aptly, the book includes written contributions and inputs, through interviews, of some towering giants of Pakistani journalism, including I.A. Rehman and Muhammed Ziauddin — both provided written input only weeks or months before walking into the eternal sunset — and modern-day respected professionals such as Zaffar Abbas, Badar Alam and Asha’ar Rehman.

Although the book is a sizable reserve of information and analysis that draws from dozens of media research resources, both national and international, it has just four chapters, each with plenty of facts to allow readers to marvel at the complexity of the challenges analysed.

The first dives into the contours of the overall crisis threatening to uproot the journalism landscape as we know it. The second chronicles events and triggers from recent years that have contributed to the crisis. The third examines the legal web with which governments have tried to exert control, and the fourth is a list of senior journalists and recent media managers analysing how the media arrived at a point where its future is more uncertain than ever.

In the first chapter, from his experienced eye and mind, the late Muhammed Ziauddin explains the media’s inability to keep pace with technology, the consumer-driven transformation of the information landscape and its consequent failure to dictate its evolution to its advantage.

Mazhar Abbas details how the media crisis is emblematic of the state crisis related to depriving citizens of being in control of their political destinies and development agendas, with the media being used as a target to prevent meaningful citizen-state dialogue.

Faheem Siddiqui describes how political parties have muddied up the media waters. Asha’ar Rehman showcases the struggle of journalists’ unions and press clubs in keeping alive whatever remains of creditable media, while Tauseef Ahmed Khan contextualises state repressions on media that are becoming ever more insidious and maleficent.

In the second chapter, the book takes a deep look at a phenomenon not often analysed: ownership concentration that denotes risks to pluralism under a ‘media ownership monitor [MOM]’ index developed by Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF).

RSF has used MOM to map media pluralism risks in over 20 countries, including Pakistan in 2019. It throws up astonishing results for Pakistan after mapping the top 40 print, television, radio and digital media (top 10 in each category) by audience share. For instance, the total media advertising market was Rs 87.7 billion in 2016-17 and Rs 81.6 billion in 2017-18. This became a fraction under Imran Khan’s government.

Under the media concentration indicator, the majority share of the top four in each medium (television, radio, newspapers and online) is in control of four owners or less, thus making it easier for the state to control a majority landscape by controlling just four media houses through fear or favour. It also puts the media ownership concentration in the country in the high-risk category, as regulatory safeguards in Pakistan aim to limit ownership monopoly, but not prevent monopolies over audience or market share.

Other key findings: in Pakistan, seven cross-media groups — owning titles in each of the four categories of print, television, radio and online — control nearly 70 percent of audience share. The top group has one-third of this share, with the government coming in second.

Clearly, Pakistan’s high media ownership concentration makes it a risky market, which is allowing the state to manipulate the media primarily into submission and progressively into irrelevance.

Also investigated in this chapter is the impact of the crisis on media in Balochistan (analysis by Dr Seemi Naghmana) and in Sindh (by Sohail Sangi) and how the country’s two main players — the Jang Group (after the bloody assassination attempt on its anchor Hamid Mir) and the Dawn Media Group (after the so-called ‘Dawn Leaks’ controversy) — were browbeaten into submission by the security establishment.

According to Badar Alam, the last editor of Herald magazine, the whole campaign of aggression against independent media caused the media to eventually compromise on adequately protecting even its limited spaces for critical thinking, especially after journalistic investigations into Peshawar’s Army Public School (APS) attack came to be seen as inimical to military interests, even treason. In Alam’s view, media coverage opened the military up for criticism and the institute retaliated by intimidating the media.

In the third chapter, the book looks at the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) instituted by the Nawaz Sharif government in 2016 and heavily used by Imran Khan’s government to crackdown on free speech in online spaces, where audiences have migrated after being betrayed on public interest agendas by legacy media.

Khan’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting tried thrice to enact more stringent social media and digital media regulations, but was thwarted in its attempt to set up the proposed authorities — the Pakistan Print Media Regulatory Authority, the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority and the Pakistan Media Development Authority — in effect to establish one-stop ‘headquarters of censorship’.

It only succeeded in early 2022 (some months after the book was published) to amend Peca to criminalise defamation by journalists and allow five-year jail terms for those convicted in fast six-month trials. Thankfully, the Islamabad High Court has since declared the ordinance instituting this amendment void.

The last chapter serves as a neat compendium of personal mini-analyses of the media crises by stalwarts I.A. Rehman, Hussain Naqi, Muhammed Ziauddin, Zaffar Abbas, Mudassir Mirza, Dr Jabbar Khattak, Maqsood Yusufi, Anwar Sajidi, Mazhar Abbas, Sohail Sangi, Arif Baloch and others.

The late Rehman Sahib points out that the difference between the current and past media crises is that, now, the powers-that-be want nothing less than a total submission of the press. Naqi Sahib says the current crisis is manufactured, not organic. The late Ziauddin Sahib says you can tell who is behind the media crises when Dawn and Jang groups’ print titles and television channels are not welcome in cantonment areas.

Khattak Sahib makes a poignant point: in recent years, both the Sharif and Khan governments pumped in too much money among selected media; this not only distorted the organic media market but also sadly made sponsored journalism a mainstream staple.

The book is an excellent resource on the nature and triggers of the crisis crippling the media and independent journalism in Pakistan today.

This review was first published in the EOS magazine of Dawn.


Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistani journalist, media analyst, researcher and free speech campaigner with interests in politics, media, development and science. He tweets @adnanrehmat1

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