Journalists in Pakistan are going through an unprecedented crisis

Journalists in Pakistan are going through an unprecedented crisis

When I was employed in Dawn in the mid-2000s, a colleague and I would call each other following a violent incident in the city to alert each other about routes to take to keep us safe. Later, we would discuss the incident in terms of where we thought the news would likely fit on the paper’s page the next day. When I look back at that time, I don’t think we were morbid; maybe, the desensitisation to death and violence was par for the course, a way to manage ourselves. Back then, I was able to leave these thoughts when I left work.

Today, folks working in newsrooms say they can no longer create boundaries between the professional and personal and “the news” has taken a big toll on their well-being. News has always been chaotic but when coupled with financial insecurity – Pakistan’s and their own – media workers face anxiety like never before. And there are very limited resources to help.

Many of you may not know how difficult times are for lots of media houses who have had to lay off staff or are unable to pay salaries on time. Imagine the toll it takes to do your job in a climate of toxicity, polarisation and so much disinformation. And if journalists are on social media, they face abuse and being labelled “lifafa”.

Some journalists with ingenious ideas have learned how to earn additional incomes.

I heard about a young man who posted Vlogs on YouTube which were critical of former Prime Minister Imran Khan. He received a small number of views but when he decided to speak favourably about Khan, his audience engagement went sky high. He began to earn from his content. When asked why he changed his stance, he admitted he found fame and favour in siding with Khan. This is why I believe celebrities’ support for Khan isn’t necessarily ideological as much as they don’t want to risk going against the grain. And the grain favours Khan at the moment.

That means there’s no profit in fairness.

Independent media which is critical of all power structures is a pillar to an informed democracy. However, we see many media outlets serving as mouthpieces for the very economic or political players they need to be challenging. Media owners’ varied business interests means most outlets are for-profit organisations, supported by corporate advertisers.

A cursory glance at the news media landscape tells us that narratives posing as news are thriving. You know which channel to watch for the point of view you subscribe to and where to go to hear the other side. It seems some TV channels report for the benefit of the owners more than their audiences.

This is a devastating blow for journalism. The World Freedom Index reported that journalism last year was “blocked or seriously impeded in 70 countries and constrained in 62 others, a combined total corresponding to 73% of countries evaluated”.

While the internet is rightfully described as a tool of liberation, can we say the same about social media? Studies have found that social media use is linked to an increase in political engagement especially in emerging democracies, but also an increase in polarisation, populism, online right-wing radicalisation and distrust in institutions, especially the media. I don’t believe social media is incompatible with democracy but I do think understanding its effects on society requires analysis and then some regulation by independent policymakers.

I sympathise with journalists who have turned to social media to either say the things their employers won’t let them and earn income or say what they believe will earn them income. However, some things get compromised in the process. If you’re driven by profit, you are likely to sensationalise news for higher ratings. It’s this model which needs to be broken.

I’m here to offer some slivers of hope. I know journalists who are coming together to launch their own news outlets, free of fear and favour and are focused on creating journalism that can make a difference. They will need your support.

As an aside: I registered with Humraaz, a mental health app launched by the government, which is user friendly and accessible to English-language speakers. It allows users to gauge how they’re feeling and then connect with psychiatrists in their respective cities. The application had 1,000 downloads at the time of my writing but also a 2.6 rating out of 5, mostly registration issues. People can also call 1166 and seek help though I did not avail of that facility. (I think the requirement of the Computerised National Identity Card for registration may deter people from trying it for fear of privacy breaches.) I hope journalists will consider availing of this facility which may offer them some support.

This article first appeared in Dawn.

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