Recent downsizing in private media houses has rung alarm bells for working journalists. Experts look at it from multiple angles including media censorship and faulty business model
Pakistani media houses are facing a serious financial crunch, leading to downsizing and layoffs. The issue gained prominence after the induction of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI)-led federal government, which stopped releasing pending government advertisement to private media. It warned of a worse situation in the days to come, urging the media houses to rethink their business models and bring innovations rather than relying on revenue generated through government advisements. Around 20 to 40 per cent of the advertisement revenue of different private media houses comes from government advertisements, according to different reports.
Journalists are protesting against the ongoing downsizing in different private media houses. They are condemning these measures leading to layoffs, unnecessary delays in salaries and even non-payment of salaries for months in some media houses.
"There is no doubt we have a very vibrant media in Pakistan. However, there is need to reduce dependability of private media on government advertisements," Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry tells The News on Sunday. The government used to spend some Rs10 billion on advertisements annually, which was increased up to Rs35 billion in the last years of the government." According to the minister, this tax-payers’ money was used to bribe and have news run in its favour by the previous government.
He says the situation might have affected some media houses solely depending on government revenue. "There is need to change the business models of such media houses and also to end disparity in salaries of different categories."
Following the financial crunch, a number of media houses have laid off many staff members and made cuts in salaries of journalists in senior positions. One television channel, Waqt Television, had to close down its operation, while another big media house fired its reporters from many cities. Many are also planning retrenchments and budgetary cuts to deal with this situation, according to some senior journalists.
"We are trying to compile exact figures of the affected media persons. So far, we can say that around 1,000-1,500 workers have lost their jobs or faced cuts in salaries in the past few weeks," Muhammad Afzal Butt, president of one the main factions of Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) tells TNS.
When asked about the strategy the union is opting to counter this situation, he says, "We are protesting in groups outside press clubs in different cities and have also set up a protest camp in front of parliament urging the government to think about this matter."
Butt blames the government and its censorship policy which is being used through blocking advertisements, to media houses forcing, them to layoff staffers. "However, we also consider media houses responsible because when they get licenses they assure the government in writing that they have full capacity to generate revenue, but later fail to get business and rely on government advisements."
"Instead of imposing curbs on free flow of information and stopping government advertisements, the Information Ministry should hold the owners and managements of TV channels responsible for this situation because they are not paying salaries to their staff and even sacking workers," says Butt.
"It is an issue that has multiple angles and media censorship is a major aspect of it. The government and unions need to sit together and evolve a better strategy," he says.
However, the federal information minister rules out any censorship behind this move.
"The basic issue of media is its own structure, which is not based on solid and viable grounds. With the fast growth and latest developments in information technology, the shape of media will be totally different 10 years later," he says. "Media houses should try to bring innovation to generate revenue."
Meanwhile, a Joint Action Committee of all three major factions of PFUJ has been formed and would start working in the coming days to take up this matter. The unions fear more layoffs and downsizing in the days to come.
The federal government has, recently, constituted a ‘content committee’ to approve the issuance of government advertisements to the print and electronic media. Federal information minister heads the committee and the purpose of the committee is yet to be defined.
All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) has expressed concern on this move, terming it a "surgical strike" against the media and a tool to curb the independence and viability of the media. In a statement, the APNS has condemned this step of the government to control the print and electronic media through "over-centralisation" of government advertisements that are the lifeline of the media’s economy.
The APNS maintains that since the formation of the PTI government, the quantum of federal and provincial governments’ advertisements has declined drastically, causing an acute financial crunch, particularly for the regional and smaller media outlets. The APNS worries that the federal government’s move will result in downsizing and unemployment in the media industry. It urges the federal government to immediately withdraw the policy and let the media play its essential role in the democratic system.
"When you launch an enterprise you have to get a market survey done, and consider its potential, and get estimates of possible clientelle. Unluckily, most of the media houses, especially, channels, do not do this," says senior journalist M Ziauddin, pointing out the flaws in private media business model. "Many business groups have opened channels for entering power corridors and make a political clout. We know the government and private advertisement cake is very limited and it depends on circulation or rating. Through this formula, obviously, small media houses with less ratings get nothing and it becomes difficult for them to retain employees after a certain period."
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"The government should assure sustainability of these media houses through bank guarantees so that workers do not get affected," he views.
"Monopoly of some media houses and divided unions with no influence can be a few reasons behind this situation," says Ziauddin, urging the media houses to rethink, collectively and individually, their business models for better survival. "Otherwise, the government would continue to benefit through such situations and ultimately it would affect democracy where the media would be less independent."
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