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Digital Media In Pakistan: The Story Of Naya Daur’s Genesis, Survival & Expansion

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An interview on Pakistonomy

Why Naya Daur?

Uzair: I want to start with Naya Daur. What was the thinking behind this initiative, how did you set it up and how did it evolve?

Raza: Thank you for your direct and focused approach, I appreciate that. Naya Daur is a digital media platform. Although it’s been running for more than two years, it’s still a work in process, that is, it is still developing its particular shape and form. The platform is a direct result of my evolving career over the years. As a civil servant and, later, as the government’s specialist in the Asian Development Bank, I engaged closely with the media. During this time, I realised not only the importance of having accessible spaces for public opinion and engagement, but also that we seriously lacked these in Pakistan. So, I made the decision to try to change this.

I began by setting up my own blog “Jahaane Rumi” in 2005. It’s still there as an archival website. In 2007, I founded “Pak Tea House”, which quickly emerged as a platform for young writers to share alternate perspectives and opinions. Much like the original Pak Tea House on Mall Road in Lahore, the online Pak Tea House became a site for intellectual musings and a place of learning. I also did editorial work for the Friday Times for a decade afterwards and wrote in other publications. All this time, I continued to realise that the nature of journalism was changing rapidly, particularly due to digital media technologies. Seeing that more and more people were getting their news from the internet I decided to focus exclusively on an online audience.

Then, in 2014, I moved to the U.S. and, obviously, my work was disrupted. It all happened suddenly, and I started teaching in the States. But when you are in the habit of writing and engaging in media, it’s hard to give it up. Fortunately, in the U.S., I met a few overseas Pakistanis who were also dissatisfied with the state of traditional media industry in Pakistan and wanted to do something about it. Four or five doctors whom I met were keenly interested in starting something like the NPR…

Uzair: Sorry to interrupt, but that’s a very interesting idea, the NPR. As you were explaining how Naya Daur originated, I was thinking of VOX…

Raza: I am a regular follower of VOX, VICE and similar platforms but, to me, Democracy Now is much more inspiring. Although it is a small independent media outlet, it has a huge outreach, quite different from the mainstream corporate TV industry in the US. My own subject, that I teach in Ithaca College, is also independent media, which means that it is free of the imperatives of economic and business interests of corporations.

So, anyway, with the help of the doctors I met in the U.S., and with donations from a few businessmen from Karachi, Naya Daur began its setup.  It’s still a small setup. You know how it is kind of a global issue right now to devise a sustainable financial and business model in media and Naya Daur is no different. Moreover, in the case of Naya Daur, what has happened is that at around the same time as it began to make an impact, it also started receiving flak from various constituencies in the Pakistani cyberspace. We weren’t a huge organisation to be able to deal with this situation. We still aren’t. I have met some people who hold an impression that we have hundreds of employees. However, there are only three to four editors, including me, and I am not even engaged full time due to my other responsibilities.

Engaging the youth and developing online audiences

So, to come to the question about the thinking behind this initiative, my primary objective with Naya Daur has always been to engage the young generation. It should be a platform in which young writers contribute as well as one that is able to speak to a young audience. The challenge is to engage the youth despite the presence of a glut of distorted, and even false, news and information being circulated from circles with vested interests, particularly the right wing.

You will remember the power of the mainstream media during the time that the Panama Leaks about Nawaz Sharif were being discussed and it began to seem as if everyone was calling Nawaz Sharif corrupt and demanding his removal. There were very few people swimming against the tide at that time…Naya Daur is a platform that can offer alternative opinions, together with the prevalent ones, to give a truer representation of what people are thinking. Naya Daur was thus a timely intervention.

So that’s the story of how it came to be and the idea behind it. Of course, it’s only a start-up so far. It’s still learning to walk but I hope it grows into a mature media platform of Pakistan. I wouldn’t want to see it die down soon after its birth like we see a lot initiatives in Pakistan do.

Uzair: That’s a fascinating story. I want to touch upon two very interesting points. Firstly, as you say, young people increasingly use online mediums to get their information; secondly, the majority of audiences in Pakistan are used to more sensational content being shown on media, the junk food diet or mirch masala, so to say. So, when you bring in something more nuanced – say, like an Italian pasta or French cuisine – how does the audience react?

Raza: I think your diagnosis is absolutely correct. That is the way media works, not just in Pakistan but around the world. Look at the US: the noise, the sensation, the triggering headlines – these are as much present there as in Pakistan. Similarly, the nature of reported stories in Pakistan and in other countries around the world often make their authenticity quite suspect. Still, the media in Pakistan can learn much from international platforms, as well as become more mature by being mindful of local needs and demands.

Issues that mainstream media fails to effectively cover

For example, there are certain topics that mainstream media in Pakistan simply doesn’t cover, or it doesn’t give them the attention they deserve. Climate change, public health, water and sanitation, women and children rights – these are all very important issues and one of our main objectives has been to raise public consciousness about these topics. We have tried different methods to do this. Initially, we made short text-based videos. However, these haven’t been able to get a lot of engagement from people. It’s still the case that, for example, when you do a session on the ill effects of tobacco, only about 200 people attend. However, when you do something on Imran Khan, or the rivalry between Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif, or that between NS and the establishment, you see a jump in the number of viewers in the thousands. Add people’s thirst for sensationalism to a general skepticism about the reliability of the news, and you get a picture of the challenges that we in the media industry have to deal with all the time. It’s like people want information but they want it for its sensational or entertainment value, not what it has to offer in terms of truth. So, this is a huge problem we have to deal with.

On the other hand, when you do a story with a human angle, and present a narrative with real human beings, you can bring back the important messages, like those about health, education, poverty, inequality etc. There are many examples of such stories that have done quite well on Naya Daur. For example, a few former students of LUMS wrote about their experience of studying in an elitist institution. Now don’t get me wrong, LUMS is a very good institution. However, there is much to be said about class and lifestyle differences in an institution like LUMS and readers were quick to engage with the topic of economic inequities which several of the authors had raised. From this, we learned a lot of new, effective methods to bring attention to important sociocultural issues.

We also try to give space to all sorts of stories. My primary aim is always to bring nuance and an instructional element to the stories we run. However, this is not always easy. As you have said, the mirch masala is such an important element of news media that doing away with it is simply not possible, at least in the short, or even in the medium, term. But I am hopeful that, as we go along and more and more people engage with online outlets, people’s interests and appetite for reliable news will evolve. We no longer have a complete absence of online platforms, which is a good thing. Channels like “Soch” and “The Current” are doing important work and they are all online.

Now, since the pandemic, we have also started to increasingly utilise livestreaming technology and the response has been overwhelming. Most videos have views in the thousands and quite a few go up to hundreds of thousands as well. From such responses, we have reason to believe that we are building an online audience that is more interested in real issues than simply mirch masala. Our viewers and readers are interested in questions about why democracy doesn’t work in Pakistan, what are the underlying issues due to which governance fails, or why are we constantly immersed in economic crises. We take engagement of the public on these issues to be a very positive sign. It’s a significant improvement from dated theories, like the one suggested by the incumbent PM, in his praises for Ayub Khan’s old policies: that every evil in Pakistan is due to politicians, all politicians are corrupt, and if the politicians are somehow removed, then everything will be alright… It’s good to see public opinion evolving beyond such simple ideas.

What have we learnt at Naya Daur

Uzair: There is a lot of confusion even in the points you mention. The supporters of the PM seem to be juggling between three very distinct models which seem to be quite irreconcilable among themselves. I mean, on the one hand, we have the model of Riasate Madina, on the other, we have the US-based presidential system, and on the still other hand, we seem to be drawn towards the Chinese model. I mean there is so much contradiction in these positions… But, well, let’s move on to our next question. I would like to talk about your expectations from Naya Daur when you were starting out. What were some of the assumptions which you made and how has the journey so far challenged these? Other than the pandemic, how often have you had to change course?

Raza:  Oh, there have been lots of learning. First of all, one of the most important lessons to learn has been that it is difficult to get digital marketing and revenue. Payment gateways like Paypal are still long ways from arriving in Pakistan, so even if we have a donor, there are a number of logistical issues which come into play, and we have to navigate our way past these. Moreover, we know from other media outlets’ experience (for example, Frontier Post and Daily Times) that donor financing is simply not sustainable, regardless of the quality of material you produce. So one of our major areas of learning has to do with the production of content that can also bring in money – for example, YouTube videos and other paid-content websites. The purpose, of course, is to become financially self-sustaining.

Another important challenge has been to find the right kind of audience. Initially we were covering all kinds of issues at Naya Daur, but with time, we have started to become more focused, and are working to identify the right audience. We are in the process of building a brand and of creating new spaces for free expression, and this is obviously a long and arduous process, with a lot of learning through trial and error on the way.

Challenging the status quo for a better Pakistan

Then, you know that our content is not strictly conformist to popular national narratives. In fact, I want to make Naya Daur a part of the continuum to which, for example, the old anti-slavery journals and newspapers in the U.S., and the Indian anti-establishment paper, The Wire, belong. I believe in the power of anti-status quo media outlets like these. No status quo remains unassailable forever, and it serves no purpose to try to force media to become a slave to absolute authority rather than asking questions from it.

As you can probably imagine, this idea also makes for the most stressful part of the whole work. I have been labelled a number of things, “Indian agent” being one of them. The travelogue on India, Delhi by Heart, which I wrote, attracted a massive backlash. Back then, I used to laugh at the Twitter threads calling me a RAW agent. Then, in 2014, there was an assassination attempt on me… Such is the climate which we in the media often have to deal with. Both giving labels and being labelled is a technique rampant in mainstream media and the society at large, and this has the potential to become life-threatening. We have so many examples of this. Take Malala Yusufzai. Her blogs in favour of education earned her the label of “anti-Pakistan.” I mean this needs to be countered from within mainstream media and the larger society. For my part, I can say that these factors play a huge part in Naya Daur’s genesis and rationale.

Five ways to change Pakistan

Uzair: What will you say about what’s happening in the country? What are the most important issues and what are the solutions? In other words, what is your personal theory of change for Pakistan? And how does it come to play out in the decapacitating environment that you have been describing?

Raza: The term ‘theory of change’ is slightly problematic for me. I used to be a consultant in the development sector and this whole ‘theory of change’ terminology is too donor [euro] centric. Nonetheless, it’s still an important and valid question so I will address it.

I think that to achieve any kind of desirable change, one needs to have a set of ideas that can converge into a vision or a strategy of change. In our particular case, for example, I think it’s about achieving five separate targets.

First and foremost is the need for a complete redirection of how the state defines itself, how it views itself, how it projects itself and how it functions. This is of course complicated, and our more than 70 years of history – in which security has been the chief concern not only of the military but also of politicians and the intelligentsia – has not helped make it simpler. In my view, Pakistan needs to shift from a security to a developmental welfare state. We can follow a number of readily available models to do this… even next-door China is a model. China eliminated poverty from its population. It did not ‘reduce’ it, as the neoliberal imagination goes. South Korea and Malaysia are similar examples.

Secondly, we need to shift away from imagining our country to be the one that’s responsible for whatever goes on with the “Ummah”. The imaginary of the quintessential Islamic nationalist state has brainwashed people so much that if some idiot in France makes blasphemous cartoons, people come out on the streets to demand going to war with France.

Thirdly, we need to develop our education system, especially promoting vocational training and building a skilled work force. Pakistan unfortunately tops the list of countries in terms of the highest number of out-of-school children. Here, again, it’s not as if we lack models to follow to improve our situation. We can learn from the experiences of South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, and even Vietnam, who have all managed to raise the educational standards in their countries dramatically. I mean, can we be in a worse position than the one which Vietnam was in to revamp its education system, when the U.S. finally left it at peace after years of war? If the resilient people of Vietnam can work hard so that they are now well on a path of development and growth, what stops us from doing the same?

Fourthly, we have to secularise the state of Pakistan. We cannot have a Pakistan for all Pakistanis unless we do this. Jinnah’s unequivocal statements which guaranteed religious freedom to everyone should be followed in letter and spirit. Christians should not have to be sweepers. Hindus should not have to worry about their life, dignity or sanctity of faith. We need to harmonise our society and remove its fault lines.

Lastly, we need to learn from our past mistakes and understand the importance of federalism. In many ways, federalism has been the perennial challenge facing Pakistan. Its failure led to the disaster of 1971 when we alienated and ultimately caused the majority of our population to split away from us. 1971 should have been the wake-up call following which the powers that be should have realised that it takes more than giving some money and a few ministries to the provinces for the achievement of a coherent state with such a diverse population as Pakistan’s.

Effective devolution to the level of mohalla and union councils has still not been achieved. Time and again, we find people identifying themselves first with their ethnic identity, that is, Pashtun, Sindhi, Punjabi, Balochi and so on, and later with being Pakistani. There was a survey conducted by the British Council which returned these results as recently as 2020. Until we take this fact seriously and regard their ethnicity to be an important element of people’s identity, we can, at best, only pay lip service to ideas of national unity and integration.

So these are the five points of my ‘theory of change’ as you called it.

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