n the World Press Freedom Day (May 3), Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released its World Press Freedom Index 2022. The annual ranking is based on a variety of variables related to press freedom that are aggregated to generate scores for countries, which subsequently result in determining the ranking of the countries. Pakistan fell 12 spots to 157 from its 145 ranking in 2021. This was a charge sheet against the previous government that had claimed that media and journalists in Pakistan were free.
This ranking was affected, in large measure, by the way the government tried to suppress digital media, which has become a significant medium for the dissemination of news. The former government planned to introduce the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) and had promulgated the draconian PECA ordinance aimed at clipping the wings of digital media. This underscores the importance of this form of journalism and the need to make concerted efforts to promote and support digital media all over the country.
In this age of social media, the news consumption patterns have changed. TV and print are no longer the preferred method of news consumption for the youth, which make up almost two-thirds of the population of the country. This has made digital media even more significant because it is the primary, and in many cases only, source of news doe many. Thus helping this nascent media sector is in the best interest of the citizens and ultimately democracy in Pakistan.
In order to support digital media and help it grow, the following measures can be taken by the new government. First, dealing with the problem of fake news and disinformation. The advent of digital media has made it easier to share the news. At the same time, the spread of fake news and disinformation has also become easy. People, political parties, and in some cases, some government institutions use digital media to spread fake news to achieve certain objectives. This phenomenon has badly affected the credibility of digital media.
Populist leaders like Donald Trump in the USA have used this factor to further damage the credibility of the media. This is resulting in people losing trust in digital media and ultimately not believing even the news shared through it.
Traditional media organisations that have strong associations can protect the rights of their employees. This was not the case with digital media until 2020. In that year, the Digital Media Alliance of Pakistan (DigiMAP), an alliance of over a dozen non-legacy digital media organisations, was established. This alliance is working for streamlining of digital media and protecting the rights of its member organisations.
Moreover, on the pretext of countering fake news, some governments justify censorship of digital media, thereby restricting media freedom. The solution to this problem is not censorship but educating people on countering fake news. Media information literacy (MIL) programmes designed by the UNESCO and certain civil society organisations are a step in the right direction. More investment should be made in such programmes by all those who care for press freedom in Pakistan. Once the youth have the knowledge required to distinguish between real and fake news, they will not fall victim to disinformation. This will ultimately help restore the credibility of digital media.
Creating and promoting alliances among digital media organisations can also be helpful. Traditional media organisations that have strong associations can protect the rights of their employees. This was not the case with digital media until 2020. In that year, the Digital Media Alliance of Pakistan (DigiMAP), an alliance of over a dozen non-legacy digital media organisations, was established. This alliance is working for streamlining digital media and protecting the rights of its member organizations. Consumers of digital media support the alliances like DigiMAP, so that can get better news products in the end.
Thirdly, people need to start paying for digital media content. The biggest problem for digital news media organisations is that it is hard for them to generate revenues. Digital advertisement revenue from news platforms has been snatched by tech giants such as Google and Facebook. What digital media organisations get is not enough to finance meaningful news operations. Therefore, people need to realise the importance of paying for news. If they do not pay then the news content they will consume will be tailored as per the needs of the advertisers. This is detrimental to people as they will not be properly informed and will also end up making wrong decisions based on the advertised content. On the other hand, if they pay for content, then digital media organisations will tailor the content according to the needs and interests of the users.
Lastly, the government needs to tone down its hostility towards digital media. The government must facilitate the establishment of a regulatory and compliance framework for digital media organisations. This will help the latter in streamlining its operations and financial matters and make it easy for the government to deal with the problem of fake news, with the help of digital media alliances. It can be a win-win situation for everyone.
Given the current political turmoil and the economic crisis, helping the digital media is not a top priority for the new government. However, the government needs to realise that media is linked to the day-to-day affairs of the country and significantly affects how the people perceive the aforementioned crisis. Therefore, investing time and resources in aiding and reforming digital media is not a bad idea.
The writer is a journalist covering Balochistan, CPEC, politics and the economy. He can be reached on Twitter: @iAdnanAamir.