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Pakistan’s digital media policy: attempt to promote influencers over journalists?

What if the govt gives ads to YouTubers now?

SAMAA | - Posted: May 3, 2020 | Last Updated: 2 years ago
Posted: May 3, 2020 | Last Updated: 2 years ago

Even the most reluctant of old school journalists are on Twitter today. Some of them get into regular fights with ‘readers’ while others prefer to maintain a dignified distance. And we all got the sense that the tables had turned when big names who were bumped off television screens for saying the wrong thing later resurfaced on YouTube with their own channels.

The primetime heavyweights suddenly realised that not only could they sidestep state censorship on these independent social media platforms but that they were no longer beholden to media seths. They could even earn in dollars if their personal brand was strong enough. Suddenly they weren’t scoffing at vloggers who had been doing this for years. Those who were screen shy also caught on to or WordPress where they could put their reporting without it being blacked out. If they had once been suspicious of social media, they were discovering that it was now capable of saving them.

Their jealously guarded turf, called the Fourth Estate, was still, however, regarded as the sole purview of professional journalists. User-generated content or blogging was fine but it would never hold up to the rigour reporters felt they applied to their craft. Their bylines still brought them influence in the corridors of power.

When prime ministers held off-the-record sit-downs it would be with a select few. And so on April 24, when Imran Khan met “social media journalists” many people sat up and took notice. Not everyone was sure what the government meant by this new term.

What was clear, however, was Imran Khan’s stance that mainstream media cannot be trusted and that he was looking elsewhere. At the meeting, he accused the old media of hiding the corruption of former governments, claiming that television anchorpersons used to be given money to run “planted” shows in the past.

The PM appeared to want digital media to replace mainstream media. “YouTube is a good opportunity, make it your career,” Siddique Jan, a journalist and YouTuber who attended the meeting quoted PM Khan as saying.

A day after the meeting, PM Khan’s aide on information Firdous Ashiq Awan announced the government had decided to give advertisements to YouTube channel owners and digital media users under its Digital Media Advertisement Policy. (She has since been replaced).

“The government is going to own digital media as one of the important communication tools,” Dr Awan had told reporters.

Journalists see this as a euphemism to control the media. “This government, unlike any in the past, is very sensitive to how it is portrayed on social media,” said Benazir Shah, a Lahore-based journalist and political commentator. She said that the government has been trying since it came to power to dictate that the media report “positively” and certain media houses have been targeted for taking a critical stance.

Pakistan’s media industry has weathered a decline in fortunes financial and otherwise since the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf came to power in 2018. The massive cuts in government advertising mean that thousands of media workers have been laid off.

Journalist bodies in the country say the government has blocked advertisements to the Dawn and Jang media groups. In March this year, the All Pakistan Newspapers Society said the PTI government in Punjab, Islamabad and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had stopped giving advertisements to these media groups.

“The PTI has been all-out pressuring media houses to toe their line,” said Benazir Shah. “This tactic of pushing ads on cyberspace is another means to suppress any dissent or critical voices.”

In its 2019 report, Amnesty International noted that the authorities in Pakistan had intensified their crackdown on the right to freedom of expression.

“In the past, the ruling party’s official Twitter account has accused journalists of ‘propagating the enemy’s stance’, while its official spokesperson routinely accuses journalists of peddling fake news,” she said.

Meanwhile, in February this year, the government allocated Rs42.7 million to set up a digital media wing at the Ministry of Information. It has already published ads in newspapers, seeking candidates for the team.

“The social media wing’s mandate is to defend the government policy,” Asad Baig, a representative for the independent watchdog, Media Matters for Democracy, told SAMAA Digital.

Referring to YouTubers, Baig said that they are said to be fact-checking disinformation in the digital space. “How would YouTubers fact-check disinformation,” he asked. “You have to have a certain skillset to fact-check.”

For its part, the government denies it has finalised any digital media policy. Arsalan Khalid, the government’s focal person on digital media who arranged the meeting with YouTubers, told SAMAA Digital that the announcement of a new digital media policy by Awan was a “misunderstanding”.

“This is not a separate policy but part of the media advertisement policy and digital is part of it,” Khalid said. A draft of the policy has been prepared but it has not been approved yet, he added.

The proposed policy is for digital media publishers, he explained. “For the time being, we will not be engaging independent social media influencers,” he added. The government will make a system and set criteria for the registration of YouTubers, because it cannot simply give ads to them on the basis of the number of views on their content.

Some old school journalists say that there is nothing wrong with giving government ads to social media platforms. “It is a good thing for digital [media] and news websites,” argued Arif Nizami, the president of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society, while speaking to SAMAA Digital.

“They should be given ads,” he said. Print media is dying, especially since the coronavirus crisis hit. But will it be a fair policy? What about the anchors and journalists who claim that they were fired because they criticised the government. They have YouTube channels on which they regularly share their views on developments in the country.

“Will they also be given ads?” asked Nizami. “If not, then it [the digital media advertisement policy] will just be another attempt to control the media.”

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