Pakistan has been able to engender a growth-oriented, dynamic digital society with internet and online media usage exploding in numbers and scale in recent years. Internet, like in other places on the planet, is empowering Pakistanis to express themselves vigorously. Easier, faster and cheaper internet access is fuelling social media use and underpinning a burgeoning online current affairs media and community information platforms that are driving a national discourse from a people’s perspective. This is replacing mainstream TV and radio media in Pakistan as sources of traditional information compromised by Big Business and Deep State with public interest journalism fading away all but completely. The ‘new internet media’ is become the ‘new journalism media’ in Pakistan.
A growth-oriented, dynamic digital society
Since the turn of the new millennium Pakistan has revolutionized itself by way of digital communications. The growth of telecom and media sectors (about 135 local TV channels and over 200 radio stations by start-2019) meet a rapidly growing young population (more than 51% , or over 100m of the country’s 207m people are under the age of 25). Demographics and technology have resulted in a digital realm that is bigger in numbers than the individual national size of over two-thirds of the countries on the planet and makes Pakistan one of the largest digital societies of the world. In 2017 Google put Pakistan among the four countries (along with India, Indonesia and Brazil) that will give the ‘next billion smartphone users to the world.’ At the start of 2019 Pakistan accounts for 153m cellular phone subscribers (a teledensity of over 73%) of which 63m have broadband Internet connections and 61m are 3G/4G subscribers.
An expanding digital footprint for Pakistan means large numbers of people are connected and millions of new citizens are being added to the numbers of mobile, Internet and social media users every year. Information consumption online is increasing. As a result, in recent years dedicated online platforms catering to news and current affairs have increased dramatically apart from most mainstream media groups establishing and expanding their online operations and helping expand freedom of expression, access to information and media diversity and pluralism. Most media groups and their broadcast or publications, such as dailies Dawn, Jang and Nawa-i-Waqt and television channels such as Geo, ARY and Dunya have online platforms that command large traffic of online news consumers. Social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram have tens of millions of users in Pakistan and are rapidly altering the online information and citizen journalism landscape, like everywhere in the world. The government actively promotes a culture of information sharing through Right to Information (RTI) laws at the federal level and in the four provinces, which mandate all public bodies in Pakistan (including ministries, corporations and other line offices) to maintain official websites and proactively disclose 39 categories of information online.
International players dominate Pakistani Internet, telecom and mobile markets
The Internet, fixed line and mobile telecommunication markets in Pakistan are mostly dominated by foreign players. There are four cellular telecom service providers in the country – all international, including the Norway-based Telenor, Egypt-based Mobilink, the UAE-based Ufone and the China-based Zong – that also double up as the country’s largest Internet providers by traffic. All are licensed by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) with major offices in Pakistan and coverage over large swathes of the country. The less relevant fixed-line service is provided by mostly local ISPs in Pakistan, offering bouquets of high-speed Internet, phone and TV services. Key players include Nayatel, Cybernet, Wi-Tribe, Qubee, Nexlinx and Pak Datacom,
At start of 2019, the largest player was Jazz (Pakistan Mobile Communications Ltd, PMCL) with 36.7% of the market with 56.1m subscribers, followed by Telenor with 28.3% with 43.3m subscribers, Zong (China Mobile Pakistan) with 20.9% with 31.9m subscribers and Ufone (Pak Telecom Mobile Ltd) with 13.9% with 21.3m subscribers. In 2014, four 3G licenses were awarded to Jazz, Telenor, Ufone and Zong while Zong was also given the license of 4G service. In 2016 also Telenor received the 4G license and Jazz in 2017. The strong international footprint in the sector ensures good standard, virtually uninterrupted mobile telecom services allowing for the spurt in media consumption on the go among millions strengthening the demand side for information and a proliferation of specially formatted information templates that allow for mobile-friendly interfaces of news and current affairs websites consolidating the supply side of media.
On the supply side, international players again dominate the Pakistani online space, such as Google in web-search. In terms of social media, Facebook is by far the largest player in Pakistan at 87.96% - in early 2019 - followed by Twitter at 4.73%, Pinterest at 2.59%, YouTube at 2.05% and Instagram at 2%. Local social media platforms are all but absent. None of these international players, though, are involved in production of news media content. Samsung and Huawei are the largest players in the mobile devices market.
Collaborations between tech companies and media and government authorities
With over 35m Facebook and more than 3.5m Twitter users in Pakistan in 2018 , in a backdrop of increasing censorship in recent years, these two social media platforms have increasingly become news sources themselves through citizen journalism. Some of the most popular social media persons in Pakistan are journalists some of whom command millions in followership. Mainstream media organizations also maintain social media accounts that have millions of followers of their own. However, there is no formal collaboration on journalism between tech companies and media although there have been, for various periods of time, collaborations between TV channels and mobile telephony players like Telenor and Jazz on cheap data packages to access live TV on mobile. This was in the pre-3G stage in 2013. Since then widespread availability of 3G/4G has made direct TV access on mobile and other devices like tablets easier and widespread at no extra cost.
In the run up to the July 2018 general elections in Pakistan, Facebook launched a program to help voters identify their constituencies and make sure their votes were registered. This was done through a formal collaboration between the social media giant and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) through which Facebook users were notified to ensure their votes were registered through a pop up in their news feed. Additionally, ahead of the elections, Facebook announced it was taking steps to (i) reduce chances of fake news, (ii) prevent abuse and hate speech on the platform, (iii) train ECP to increase transparency promote civic engagement, and (iv) improve enforcement of its ads policies and greater ads and page transparency.
Conflicting regulatory regime
Pakistan does not require registration of websites and there is no specific regulatory regime for online content. This has allowed an explosion of native websites focusing on media and current affairs that include not only online versions of offline media but also dedicated and popular online-only media content platforms such as Humsub and Sujag. The Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA), however, exercises jurisdiction in online spaces and operates a policy to ban content or website that is deemed either blasphemous or pornographic under the law. In 2017-18 alone, PTA blocked a staggering 800,000 websites and web pages that had “inappropriate and objectionable content.” These statistics were given by PTA to the Senate Standing Committee on IT & Telecom in late 2018. All actions were taken under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) of 2016.The blocked sites, pages and video channels contained, according to PTA, “anti-state, anti-judiciary, blasphemous, defamatory, pornographic, proxy or sectarian/hate speech” and the objectionable content was mostly found on Facebook, Twitter, Dailymotion and YouTube, among others. PTA has an agreement in place with Facebook to block pages/content allegedly violative of PECA law while it also has been in talks with Google, Twitter and YouTube for similar arrangements. PTA takes in requests from the public to block content through its email address – firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the positive side, since 2014, Pakistan’s start-up ecosystem has made significant strides thanks to supporting networks such as tech hubs, educational institutions, mobile operators and investors playing an active role in growing local start-ups. According to the GSMA Ecosystem Accelerator program’s tech hub landscaping research, Pakistan saw a 30 per cent growth in the number of active tech hubs between 2016 (26 tech hubs) and 2018 (36 tech hubs), positioning itself as the largest tech ecosystem in South Asia after India. Most of these organizations are spread around Pakistan’s three biggest cities and tech centers – Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore. Software developers are often the driving force behind a tech ecosystem. Pakistan alone is home to 360,000 software developers with over 10,000 IT graduates reaching the market each year. The country is also the world’s third largest supplier of expertise on the leading contractor platform freelancer.com.