Public interest journalism is one of Pakistan’s biggest coronavirus victims

Covid-19 is leaving a trail of devastation in its wake in Pakistan

The pandemic is accelerating the deterioration and increasing irrelevance of Pakistan’s conventional print and broadcast media as it battles a shrinking media economy resulting in a virtual end to public interest journalism. In the backdrop of a demonstrated state interest in restricting open discourse, it is difficult to see media surviving the plague intact.

Pakistani media operates in a difficult environment as a routine. Even before the plague, the national economy was tanking, media revenues were dwindling, and various media had laid off over 3,000 journalists over 2019-20. Hafeez Shaikh, the prime minister’s advisor on finance, agrees with projections of Pakistan’s key lenders that economic growth will negative this year. There is no money for media subsidies. 

Covid-19 has made the situation worse. With businesses closed, even small-scale advertisements, including lifelines from the government, have dried up, adversely affecting routine operations of the media industry that employs about 250,000 people.

Production pressures and health issues are putting the lives of Pakistan’s 20,000 journalists and other media workers at risk. Over 60 journalists in the country’s five federal and provincial capitals alone had tested positive for Coronavirus by mid-May 2020. At least one Islamabad-based journalist has died of the virus.

This is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. While most media houses embraced the necessary social distancing and enhanced hygiene practices quickly, a large part of the media staff were initially asked to work from home but feared being rendered redundant and preferred to risk themselves in the workplace and the field.

Because thousands of journalists have lost jobs, handed steep pay cuts or fear losing piling arrears in salaries, journalists are either not getting themselves tested or not acknowledging privately done tests (the tests are not mandatory by their employers). Sources within the media industry confirm hundreds of journalists across major newsrooms being positive but journalists are afraid of declaring their status for fear of losing jobs.

Media is in a downsizing mode. Most newspapers have reduced pages. At least one TV channel and some bureau offices have closed. For mainstream media, Covid-19 has meant less content, and often content that not necessarily useful for consumers in a time of enhanced need for reliable information. Such as clerics populating prime time TV talk shows and news bulletins being thin on “news you can use” formats, especially since the government is aggressive against criticism of its controversial Covid-19 response performance. Field reporting has all but disappeared and mostly statements from government functionaries substitute for journalism now.

The overall impact has been a quantitative and qualitative diminishing of professional journalistic output supplementing the pre-Coronavirus trend of closing spaces for dissent and criticism. This means media that is increasingly irrelevant as investigative journalism and diversity and pluralisms of voices and views going missing.

And yet amid the gloom a silver lining sparkles. A new media future is shaping up as the news that matters is shifting online as audiences and relative freedom of expression become digital because mainstream media has stopped being the guardian of public interest and resorted to being a spokesperson for government priorities.

How is the digital media landscape looking and will online journalism finally become bigger than conventional media in Pakistan? It is certainly headed in that direction by converting what is a media production and operation crisis into an opportunity.

Critical, public-interest Covid-19 coverage is now natively found on both online-only media platforms such as Sujag, Humsub, NayaDaur and The Current as well as the digital operations of mainstream media groups like Dawn and Jang that offer better content than their offline print and TV operations. Traffic for these digital media platforms have increased manifold.

While market Darwinism was already pushing mainstream Pakistani media online, Covid-19 has catalysed this process of media digitalization. This should not be resisted, but supported through a combination of industry and policy actions such as cheaper internet access, a looser online regulatory framework, protection of digital rights, urgent investment in capacity building of conventional journalists to become digital professionals, digital platforms coming together to prioritize professionalism and public-interest journalism and urgent online business development strategies for media start-ups.   Without staying focused on its principal mandate of public interest journalism, media in Pakistan will simply die out as Covid-19 has made clear for conventional media. Public interest digital media can be the phoenix that resurrects professional journalism in Pakistan.

This article first appeared in Arab News on May 15, 2020. Re-published with permission from the author.