LAHORE: The last news channel renowned Pakistani journalist and TV anchor Najam Sethi worked for received several warnings from the country’s electronic media regulatory authority over the contents of his show, including one in April 2019 saying the show would be banned and the channel’s license revoked if Sethi did not apologize to Prime Minister Imran Khan for spreading “false news” about him.
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority did not specify what news it had found to be false but said Sethi was being served the notice over a complaint filed with PEMRA council of complaints by Prime Minister Imran Khan.
After Channel 24 was taken off air at least four times between 2019-20, Sethi knew it was time to move his talk show, Sethi Se Sawal, to YouTube where he now has over 250,000 subscribers.
Explaining why he switched over to YouTube, Sethi told Arab News in a phone interview: “After various TV channels were restrained from hiring me in 2019 because of pressure from the government or establishment.”
“YouTube is a breath of fresh air to avoid censorship,” he added.
Indeed, Sethi is among a growing number of Pakistani journalists who have turned to the Internet, particularly to YouTube channels, amid what editors and reporters call a “widening” crackdown on the media.
Journalists’ complaints range from direct edicts to editors and producers not to air opposition voices or publish news critical of the government or the military; pulling TV stations from transmission or newspapers from circulation; and targeting the advertising revenue of dissenting media. In 2018 alone, over 3,000 journalists and media workers were laid off. Thousands more have been dismissed since, according to the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ).
Muhammad Usman, Director News at Neo News, a mainstream TV channel, said government advertisements to news channels had decreased by more than 50 percent since the government of Khan came into power in 2018. Two other journalists, part of senior management at top-tier news channels, also confirmed this.
“For mainstream channels a big chunk of their revenue came from government ads,” Usman told Arab News. “Due to cuts of ad revenue, there were layoffs … In the coming days things will only get worse.”
In 2019, responding to criticism over the government reducing ad revenue for the media, then Information Minister Chaudhry Fawad Hussain said Pakistani media houses needed to revamp their revenue models to reduce reliance on government advertising.
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority did not reply to text messages seeking comment for this story. But Information Minister Shibli Faraz denied there was censorship in Pakistan.
“There is no concept of media censorship in the country, whatsoever,” he told Arab News. “Media in Pakistan enjoys complete independence and freedom to report, be it politics, economy or any other sphere.”
Journalists like Matiullah Jan disagree.
On June 4, 2018, then Pakistan military spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor, held a press conference and showed a graphic linking a number of prominent journalists to an alleged troll account on Twitter through which he said they had shared anti-state and anti-army propaganda. The journalists featured on the graphic included Jan, then an anchor with broadcaster Waqt News.
In October that year, Jan left his job amid speculation he was forced to resign over his critical views of the military. The Pakistan army vehemently denies it censors news outlets.
Shut out from the country’s mainstream media, Jan started a YouTube channel.
“The reason I started the channel was that at the time I had left Waqt TV; I could not write in any publication,” Jan told Arab News. “There was no job for me.”
“What we can say on our YouTube channels would be difficult for anyone to say on a TV channel today,” he said. “In this crisis of censorship, YouTube is like a ventilator for us journalists.”
But censorship is not the only factor pushing journalists toward platforms like YouTube; in the age of digital media, many have launched YouTube channels to tap into the platform’s ever-growing audiences.
A 2019 profiling study by YouTube showed 73% of Pakistanis who were online watched YouTube every month and 78% of YouTube users in Pakistan said the platform was their first stop when looking for any kind of video. ‘News’ is among the top eight categories of content Pakistanis watch on YouTube, the study said.
Journalist Imran Shafqat said YouTube had become a viable option for many Pakistani journalists, especially in an environment of censorship, because it gave them access to large audiences.
That’s why, Shafqat said, he had rented out a small studio in Lahore and started making YouTube videos after the news channel he worked for folded due to financial constraints in 2019.
“I have no other job right now,” he said. “I am making more money on YouTube than I ever did at any media channel.”
But authorities are beginning to keep a close eye on social media content as well now, journalists say, increasingly using laws such as the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (PECA) to crack down on those who had gone online with criticism of the government and the military.
Sethi also said he had received numerous calls about the content of his YouTube channel, with authorities warning him to “be careful, please.”
“To which I reply: ‘Sir, when we were talking on mainstream media you pushed us here [to YouTube]. This is not how it will work now.’”