The Information Mystery: Is PTI caught in social media’s spinning web?

Published: February 14, 2019
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Prophesising the end of print and TV only makes sense if 50% or more of the population can afford and have access to digital gadgets.

The current Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government seems to be at crossroads once again as debate on media and press freedom takes a dark turn with each statement spurred by the Information Ministry headed by Fawad Chaudhry. Speaking at an event recently, Chaudhry warned media houses that “their current model would not last long if they didn’t change their ways”.

Rather than appearing to be an advice from the concerned federal authority, it seemed to be soaked in threatening tones.

“The news media wants government advertisements and sponsorship, but what would happen to its freedom if the media looks up to the government as its saviour and not as a client,” Chaudhry added.

Surprising as it may seem to him, media houses earn their bread and butter from advertisements and that is the way it is everywhere. To claim that an investment in the form of sponsorship will tarnish the media’s independence highlights the government’s intention to control what’s left of formal media in the country.

He further said that the government has reserved one-third of the government advertisements for digital media:

“News media will have to reinvent itself and the print media will have to adopt to digital technology, even cable TV has more than five years left,” he added.

I’m a little surprised as almost every major media house in Pakistan has a digital platform. Almost all the media houses that began from print and TV have now crawled into the digital platform but that in no way signifies the demise of the other mediums.

Let’s not forget we live in a country where access to a digital gadget is still considered a luxury and there are remote areas where internet is available but users are not and vice versa. While Pakistan moves swiftly towards digitisation, there is little proof that the country can shift towards total digitisation in the near future. According to a Digital Global Report prepared by We Are Social, the number of internet users in Pakistan is almost 22% of the entire population. The rest still rely on television, multilingual newspapers and magazines for information.

While I laud the information minister’s attempt at supporting the digital platforms, I am more disappointed in his complete disregard for those who are employed in the print, broadcast and radio sections and those who consume it. If I remember, the PTI is for the sab se neecha tabqa (poorest section of society), and while they sing that slogan in their conferences, the attitude towards the media seems to be the opposite. Supporting the digitisation or prophesising the end of print and TV only makes sense if 50% or more of the population can afford and have access to digital gadgets.

Major media giants that Chaudhry can only dream of welcoming or housing in Pakistan such as Buzzfeed and Vice announced shocking cutoffs this month that opened doors of debate on how profitable digital platforms in the face of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are becoming repositories of news. Buzzfeed’s layoffs amounted to 15% of the total which is more than 220 jobs across departments, even if it’s the renowned New York newsroom. Vice announced 10% layoffs and Verizon which owns Huffington Post and Yahoo cut 800 workers in the media division.

While many argue that digital platforms and models can generate money, the smokescreen on social media can make it almost impossible to get the audience required to generate profit. Facebook’s numbers have grown at an astounding speed even though it was engulfed in the privacy breach scandal for a good part of last year. This means that users online resort more to Twitter and Facebook for their information, and while digital news outlets relied on their support, the social media giants didn’t care if their numbers trumped the media. In the end, it’s a game of numbers.

Facebook, Google and Twitter have created a market for advertisements for themselves which previously helped digital news platforms stay afloat. Even if commercial businesses wanted to invest in news outlets or pay them for advertisements, the rising numbers on other social media platforms tempted them to opt for them instead. This could lead to a “new publishing depression”.

And while developed countries like the US saw the rise and fall of print, television and radio, they are now entering the same experience with digital platforms. This should make our information ministry realise that with social media giants growing stronger each day, digital platforms are struggling to make ends meet. And in Pakistan, the cycle spins the other way. News outlets here rely on advertisements in print and TV to keep their digital presence alive.

And let’s not forget the hefty amounts each government has spent on TV advertisements; it wasn’t a treat to watch Nawaz Sharif or Shehbaz Sharif in the middle of talk shows with their governmental schemes, neither is it fun to watch Imran Khan’s face outlining his multiple schemes. TV advertisements still exist because a large portion of our population consumes it.

With growing distrust on the digital media and general scepticism on online platforms, users tend to turn to Google to search for news or read up on Facebook, while news outlets – even online – seem to be sinking in the noise created by other social media platforms. Specifically in the US, with so much debate on what constitutes “fake news” and with their president openly disrespecting media houses, survival has become difficult.

If The Guardian is correct and we are to enter a publishing depression, I’d advise Chaudhry to invest and work on platforms that work in Pakistan rather than being super aspirational because maybe by the time we become digital, the digital would have collapsed. And so while we should strive to progress, we shouldn’t dump and disregard formal news mediums because they play a crucial role in the dissemination of news for the common man. And even though mobile phones become more and more affordable each day, it may show a decline in reliance on print and TV, in foresight (as the case with the US), it can also lead to complications in the future.

My piece of advice would be to bid goodbye to the legacy of print and TV media but in a graceful way; invest in it until it survives and pull the plug when it seems to yield no fruit. Currently, when many from the older generation fall into the web of “fake news” as a study by Princeton University suggested, I envision a return to print and TV – in Pakistan at least. Should this be the case, our information ministry should be ready to help the media rather than threatening its members and making it sound like media outlets are not progressing.

It’s hard for me to imagine that 12-15 years ago, everything was all print and digital media was a dream. And it’s hard to imagine that in the next 12-15 years, print and TV will have lost its charm. But while we wait for it to decline, we should honour those who spent their entire lives in formal media and also make initiatives to help them shift into the digital age. Layoffs and cutoffs aren’t the solution, train your human resources to get with the times, leaving them behind will come as karma to the outlets. And don’t forget, karma’s been on edge lately.

Warda Imran

Warda Imran

The author is an aspiring journalist and intersectional feminist. She aims on traveling the world, loves film analysis, comics, and commenting on social issues. She tweets @wisheikh (twitter.com/wisheikh)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.