A ‘digital Pakistan’ is a peculiar phenomenon. The country is one of the most digitalized societies in the world and yet besotted by unhelpful policies on free speech and accessibility that continues to stymy its potential to be an optimally flourishing digital media community. Since the advent of the millennium, Pakistan has undergone a digital communications revolution, including the media, the telecom and internet sectors.
By start 2023, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) had licensed over 130 local TV channels and more than 170 commercial and 60 non-commercial FM radio stations. And by end 2022, according to the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), there were 194 million mobile phone users in Pakistan of which 121 million were 3G/4G users. Under a new policy, in 2023 Pakistan was preparing to introduce 5G. At the end of 2022 over a third of Pakistanis – more than 60 million – were using social media including over 50 million Facebook users (making Pakistan among the top 10 community of its users globally) and tens of millions using other popular social media platforms such as YouTube, TikTok, Twitter and others. Yet, despite this the Pakistan figures low on global rankings of internet freedoms.
According to the 2022 annual index of Freedom House, Pakistan ranked 26th worst among top 100 countries for internet freedoms thanks to repeated attempts by the state in recent years to toughen up draconian controls on free speech online that have been fiercely resisted by media and civil society. This and other crackdowns have had a chilling effect on legacy media and even their digital footprints and the overall online free speech environment.
The upside is the emergence of a new crop of non-legacy, digital media start-ups that practice community journalism, focusing on public interest issues not covered by conventional media. In 2020, a group of these media start-ups banded together to establish the Digital Media Alliance of Pakistan (DigiMAP) aiming to represent community-focused socio-political and ethno-cultural pluralisms of Pakistan to professionalize a distinct public interest media landscape online.