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July 13, 2020

Sohrab Goth animal market bars 800 digital content creators from negative reporting

Karachi

July 13, 2020

Whatever social media influencers, vloggers and other digital content creators have been showing in their reports or vlogs about the Sohrab Goth animal market is very likely just one side of the coin.

The management of arguably the biggest market of sacrificial animals has apparently made 800 digital content creators sign an agreement, binding them to report on only the positive side of the market and thereby overlook any and all violations of the standard operating procedures (SOPs) devised in view of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The market that runs under the administrative control of the Cantonment Board Malir and stretches over some 960 acres with 48 blocks has, to all intents and purposes, forbidden these content creators to show anything that might put them in a bad light.

According to the undertaking, devoid of any letterhead and addressed to the market’s spokesman Yawar Chawla, content creators have to mention the name of their YouTube channel or Facebook page along with the number of their subscribers or followers.

“Kindly allow us to show positivity towards ‘Sohrab Goth Mandi 2020’ on my above mentioned platform,” reads the agreement, a copy of which was shared with The News by a content creator.

“I hereby assure you that I will be following all Mandi SOPs, and promoting them [in] my every video,” states the letter, ending with the following text in bold type: “If anything [is] portrayed negative or against Sohrab Goth Mandi 2020 SOPs, I will [be] responsible for sure.”

SOPs for reporting

Farhan* has millions of followers on his Facebook page, YouTube channel and Instagram profile. When he went to the animal market for coverage, he was asked to first visit the media cell, where one of the officials asked him to give them in writing that he would not report on anything against the market.

“I told them I had no such intention, but they asked me to give it in writing nevertheless,” he said, adding that he submitted the application, the content of which was provided by the official himself, along with his photographs and a copy of his CNIC.

He was then directed by the officials not to show anyone without a mask in his videos. “For some of my videos, I personally provided masks to the buyers and sellers before recording them, just to abide by the undertaking,” he pointed out.

He said he uploaded a video showing a cow at the market had died, but he could not pin anything on the management, just the animal seller. “How can I as an individual show anything, even genuine, against the management of the market? I don’t have any support from any organisation like a traditional reporter has.”

He agreed that the SOPs are indeed being violated at the Sohrab Goth animal market, but he lamented that he could not show any of it in his content.

Qureshi*, another content creator, said that one of the officials of the media cell told him that if he showed anything against the market, the management could take legal action against him because they had all his details. “I was told that even for a Facebook Live recording, I would have to first seek their permission.”

Managing ‘mess’

Ali Imran, one of the market’s media officials, admitted that such agreements had been signed, but he clarified that the management was not stopping anyone from covering any of the market’s activities, saying that thousands of content creators sprang up on a daily basis, so they needed to manage them.

“If we allow them all to start covering the market, they’ll make a mess of it,” he said, adding that the undertaking was needed to keep a record of them. “We never dictate them, but request them to also take the market’s version if they’re showing anything negative.”

He said that going live from the market could be tricky, which was why they kept the content creators’ record. When asked if anyone could go live on Facebook without informing them, he said that during their rounds, if their vigilance team found anyone reporting live, they bought them to the media cell to tell them about the proper procedure.

On the other hand, market spokesman Chawla denied the signing of any agreement. He said they only ask for the name and address of content creators. “They can show whatever they want to. All we ask of them is to include our version as well. This is exactly what journalism is.”

‘No legal standing’

Hija Kamran, programme manager of Islamabad-based nonprofit Media Matters for Democracy, told The News that if the undertaking is true, it is against the artistic freedom of expression of the digital content creators. Artistic freedom is the freedom to imagine, create and distribute expressions free of censorship and political interference or pressures, she said.

She pointed out that the market management seems to be making efforts to control information because of business reasons. When asked if the Cantonment Board Malir can sue the content creators, she clarified that there cannot be any defamation for reporting facts. “The government can’t sue citizens, but citizens can sue the government,” she said, adding that the market is established in a public domain.

However, she admitted, a lone digital content creator may never want to indulge in a legal battle, otherwise the undertaking can easily be challenged in the Sindh High Court.

Usama Khilji, director of civil society organisation Bolo Bhi, said that the undertaking has no legal standing. “It’s a public market,” he said, adding that under Article 19 of the constitution, every citizen has the right to freedom of speech as well as freedom of the press. “The undertaking undermines both of them.”

He said that had such an agreement been a legal step, a legal notification would have been issued following proper law. “But in this process no law was followed, and they’re using no letterhead, so it’s clearly an underhanded, ill-intentioned move.”

*Names changed to protect identities