Pakistan has traditionally had a vibrant print media tradition of often fierce journalism as a counterweight to the country’s chequered political history that includes four bouts of military rule totalling about 35 years characterized by crackdown on dissent and censorship. Even during representative rule, print media has often been the brunt of official manipulation. While in recent decades TV, radio and internet have come to occupy the central space in Pakistan’s media landscape since the turn of the century as source of information, print media still retains its disproportionately high influence on policymaking circles and by often showcasing some of the most independent and critical voices as opposed to electronic media which tends to dumb down issues.
While there are thousands of print media publications including dailies, weeklies and monthlies, aided by the fact that no mandatory prior permission or registration is required, the two sources of authentic information in terms of registration and accreditation number than less than 1,000. At the start of 2019, the Audit Bureau of Circulation of the Federal Ministry of Information and Broadcasting lists on its ‘Central Media List’ 847 newspapers that it recognizes as potentially worthy of receiving government advertising based on their circulation. These include 163 newspapers being published from more than one city and 648 published from one city only. Another source is the representative association of newspaper owners, the All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS), which listed, at the start of 2019, a total of 463 publications as members, including 209 full members and 254 associate members.
The total media advertising market, according to Gallup Pakistan data for financial year 2017-18 cited by Aurora magazine, was PKR 81.6 billion (USD 680 million), which included TV, print, radio, digital and others. Of this, the advertising volume for the print media market was second highest at 24% (compared to 46% for TV media) at PKR 19.5 billion (USD 162.5 million).
Since the advent of a new government in the fall of 2018, government advertising levels have gone down dramatically contributing to a new economic crisis in the backdrop of a resurgence in censorship and coercion that began with a vengeance around 2015. Media’s independence and freedom have been tested multiple times. First, the security and intelligence agencies declared some conflict-ridden areas in the northwest and southwest of the country off limits for journalists. Then certain news topics, such as enforced disappearances and human rights violations in areas under military operations, went missing from news headlines and talk shows. Finally, news media was expressly told to stay away from criticizing vast swathes of state policies on national security, foreign relations and even financial and economic issues concerning the military and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor – a USD50 billion loan and investment initiative being carried out by China and Pakistan. This censorship has been made possible through the government’s own advertising spending (which has been drastically squeezed) and the leverage that security and intelligence agencies can exercise over private advertisers.
Since 2018 the judiciary has also hauled reporters, editors and publishers to courts over various charges, leading to a virtual disappearance of a critique of the judiciary from the news media. On top of all that, the new federal government emerging from the July 2018 general elections has been threatening to bring in a single regulator for all types of news media, besides already employing the existing regulatory regimes to routinely take talk shows off air, ban anchor-persons, castigate newspaper editors and browbeat media owners under one pretext or the other. These developments have coincided with massive media-led campaigns for building the personal images of military commanders, judges and even political leaders. While many news media outlets initially benefited from the money spent on these exercises, most of them are now under increasing pressure to treat these individuals as larger than life personalities and keep them above any criticism – or risk further censorship and financial strangulation.
What has complicated the situation for the news media around the advent of 2019 is the global trend of collapsing financial and distribution models – a failure that has been long in the making but never got the attention it deserved. Squeezed financially by depleting advertising revenues, which are shifting to social media and digital platforms, and decreased viewership/readership, many newspapers have already died. Many others are struggling massively to stay afloat. Some TV channels are also lurching on the brink of closure due to their failure to balance their books. All other television channels, meanwhile, have started cutting costs to avoid a similar fate. But the overwhelming impact of these cuts has been borne by journalists. In 2018 alone, more than 2,000 of them lost their jobs. Many more risk the same in 2019 and beyond.