500 layoffs in 8 months: Is Pakistan’s media in crisis?

Newspapers are also in danger as dwindling advertisement revenue leads companies to divert their media spend from English newspapers to Urdu TV channels.

ByUmer Farooq
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500 layoffs in 8 months: Is Pakistan’s media in crisis?
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Dwindling advertisement revenues for print and electronic media in Pakistan have brought several news organisations on the verge of closure or staff layoffs in hundreds. According to the chief executive of a leading advertisement firm in Islamabad, the private sector—including banks, textile industry and telecom firms—has slashed their advertisement budget by 50 per cent during the past few years.

The executive also said the provincial governments of Punjab, Sindh—the main contributors of advertisement revenues for print and electronic media—and the central government in Islamabad have slashed their advertisement budget by 70 per cent, leaving the media industry in a bad financial situation.

A compilation of advertising spend collected from multiple sources, Dawn reported, estimates that the market size has grown from Rs 66.9 billion in the financial year 2015 to Rs 87.7 billion in 2017. However, the growth share of electronic and print media shows a decline.

This is also evident from the inability of media organisations to pay salary to their staffers and layoffs of hundreds of journalists in Pakistan. Afzal Butt, president of the Pakistan Federal Union of journalists, said that over the past eight months, nearly 500 journalists lost their jobs due to the bad financial situation.

Last month, Waqt Television, a leading news channels owned by the financially-strong Nawa-e-Waqt group of newspapers, decided to shut down its operations suddenly. No prior notice was given to its employees. It closed down all bureaux in different parts of the country and asked its employees to leave the premises of the TV station immediately.

For both electronic and print media in Pakistan, government advertisements act as the backbone of their finances. “The government, both provincial and central government in Islamabad buy airtime in leading television channels during prime time hours (sic) this subsidises their financial operations,” said a senior government executive. Similarly, governments subsidise operations of leading newspapers by providing them with advertisement revenues.

In August 2018, the Pakistan senate was informed that the government provided advertisements worth Rs 15.74 billion to print and electronic media from 2013 to 2017. In the initial year of its growth, electronic media in Pakistan was greatly dependent on advertisement revenues from big telecom firms for their financial strength. The situation is not the same anymore.

“During the last few years, major telecom companies have slashed their advertisement budgets … They (telecom companies) started with a big budget in 2000 and proved to be a lifeline for the newspaper industry,” says Fasih-ur-Rehman, political editor of a local newspaper. “Economic crunch led to slashing of their advertisement budget,” he added.

An analysis in Dawn states: “The newspaper industry has its own demons to overcome. Watching resignedly as companies took a substantial portion of their media spend from print to digital platforms to reach out to their target markets, the good-old trusted newspaper is faced with a mortal threat as incomes fall drastically.” It adds, “Thus starved of resources, newspapers and magazines have shed pages and created redundancies of their own. Some are finding it hard to pay salaries to their retained employees, contributing to the unrest and the increasingly vocal protest among journalists and other workers in the industry”.

On October 9, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists staged a protest in front of Parliament house. The entire leadership of the National Press Club was in attendance at the protest demonstration in front of the Parliament building.

Many in the media industry think that this isn’t a crisis that has hit the media industry out of the blue. Things have been brewing for quite some time. “Since May 2008, the newspaper industry in Pakistan has recorded a 15 to 20 per cent decrease in the sale of newspapers in Pakistani society,” said the circulation manager of a leading media house.

In Pakistan, a substantial chunk of the newspaper market in Pakistan goes to the Urdu-language newspapers. On the other hand, a small portion of the market is occupied by English-language newspapers.

During the last eight years, mid-ranking newspapers have undergone a substantial reduction in their advertisement revenues. As a result, the management of these newspapers has laid off a substantial number of their staff.

Because of the declining readership of English-language newspapers, the telecom companies are diverting their remaining advertisement budgets to Urdu-language electronic channels. This also explains the closure of two English language news channels during the last three years. Although Dawn TV (English) and Express 24/7 belonged to big media houses, they were forced to close operations following a decline in advertisement revenues. Express 24/7, however, has re-launched recently with test transmission and a skeleton staff to run the organisation.

Many journalists think that such new business model—of ownership being concentrated in the hands a sole capitalist or single family—deciding the fate of journalism and journalists in Pakistan has failed.

“I think we will have to seriously think in terms of inventing a new model of media ownership, which is different from a single capitalist ownership, who have proved to be too timid in the face of pressure from the state machinery,” said Aslam Khan, a prominent columnist in leading Urdu language newspaper, Nawa-e-Waqt.

The Pakistan media industry’s problems are compounded by the fact that a part of the state machinery is stifling free and independent voices in the media. This is a time in country’s politics when voices are being raised against the high handedness of military and its involvement in the political and public life of the country.

The media houses are under clear instruction not to give coverage to any of these voices, which are protesting against the high handedness of state machinery in any part of the country. Financial squeeze in a few cases would ensure that the rest fall in line automatically—many media outlets become propaganda channels for the government.

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