The fight goes digital

December 27, 2020

Led by the changing landscape of media, Pakistan is inching towards a broad stakeholders’ alliance of civil society, political parties and media collaborating on defence of civil liberties premised on freedom of expression

As in other socio-economic and political spheres, 2020 has been a terrible year for conventional media in Pakistan. Closing of spaces for free speech through new coercive regulations, unannounced but functional ban on coverage of political and social discontent by media regulators, shuttering down of TV channels and smaller print publications, rapidly dwindling advertising from both private and public sectors that bankrolls the media and literally thousands of journalists losing jobs and many thousands taking either pay cuts or suffering delayed salaries.

The flip side of adversity, often, is opportunity, though. And several individuals and groups active on the broader Pakistani media landscape this year simply responded with grit, innovation and doggedness in pursuit of survival. Politically banned or hounded out of their jobs, dozens of Pakistan’s most vocal journalists reinvented themselves into new avatars by simply going online and launching YouTube channels, commanding large audiences. Free of direct manipulation, both official and institutional, they now circumvent the censorship regime by propagating daring review and analysis of events.

Partly in response to Covid-19 and partly in alienation of an increasingly public-interest-devoid mainstream media, internet access in Pakistan has exploded – it is over 80 million fast-speed connections now – and with it has expanded manifold video news and views content produced both by public themselves and formal media. This was the year a majority of Pakistanis shifted their media consumption from real-time direct media sources to mobile consumption on the go through third party content distributors like social media platforms.

This has changed not just the media landscape but also the how the Pakistani society has traditionally navigated the socio-political restrictions it has always had to contend with to defend free speech. After several years of the media practitioners, civil society and representative political forces fighting in silos and using mutually exclusive and muted strategies, they have started coming together into a broad functional alliance to push back against a heartless state and assert their rights.

In response to vicious, and often foul, official narratives persistent throughout 2020 against opposition parties and civil society – including targeting of growing social rights movements represented by Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), Aurat March and students uprising and their functional blackouts from both official and private licensed media – an anti-status quo narrative has grown.

Two things happened in 2020 that changed everything. One, the anti-establishment political forces shed their usual mutual mistrust and closed ranks in the form of Pakistan Democratic Movement, giving a fillip to a broader counter-narrative that simply shifted online, catalysing the expansion of a parallel ‘people’s media’. All the opposition rallies and public protests by women, farmers, students, teachers, nurses, the PTM and regular politicians virtually banned from TV channels and a great deal from newspapers also, found themselves instead in a digital Pakistan where banning free speech is a lot more difficult. The ‘people’s media’ is now bigger than mainstream media that has little else – exceptions notwithstanding – than showcasing of foul-mouthed official spokespersons and retired soldiers masquerading as ‘analyst-journalists’ who fool no one.

Two, key socio-political stakeholders this year finally made their growing counter-narrative actionable. The expanding coercion around free speech by an overbearing state necessitated and resulted in initiatives to make their resistance go beyond the verbiage and become tangible. This has resulted in a broad agreement among media, civil society and legal community to challenge growing authoritarianism.

The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the Pakistan Bar Council, for example, this year forged working partnerships and started regularly issuing joint statements against persecution of journalists and citizens for their social media and journalistic activities. The PFUJ and the PBC also formed a joint Journalists Defence Committee to help information practitioners being targeted for their online free speech. Women journalists and civil society activists have started approaching the courts to challenge the vires of non-representative policies (including trolling and harassment), laws and regulations.

As public interest narratives and media consumers in Pakistan shifted online in droves in 2020, there has emerged a breathtaking new ecosystem of indie formal journalism almost entirely comprising all the people’s voices and interests that have been ‘force-disappeared’ from the conventional electronic and print media.

In a sign of Pakistan’s media finally leap-frogging into the future, several of such non-legacy media-independent online journalism platforms have banded together into the Digital Media Alliance of Pakistan. They have pronounced a “public interest journalism” mandate for themselves and aim to remake the face of journalism in Pakistan by reflecting the diversity and pluralisms of Pakistan by allowing a multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-faith and multi-class Pakistan to speak for themselves rather than be spoken about. This is people’s resistance to artificial ‘oneness’ being imposed by a coercive state.

Pakistan is clearly changing, and it may not all be for the worse as 2020 has seemed to suggest to us for most of the year. Led by the changing landscape of media, Pakistan is inching towards a broad stakeholders’ alliance of civil society, political parties and media collaborating on defence of civil liberties premised on freedom of expression. The future of media in Pakistan is digital, public-oriented, pluralistic and inclusive – and somehow the year 2020 was when it all assumed critical mass to become irreversible. Not too bad, eh?


The author is a political analyst and media    development specialist. He can be reached at [email protected]

The fight goes digital