LAHORE: The ThinkFest,Afkar-i-Taza 2020, that began here on Saturday at the Alhamra Arts Council failed to attract a large audience despite some interesting sessions and thought-provoking discussions.

A keynote address by Sir Mark Lyall Grant began the day. Sir Grant was once the UK High Commissioner to Pakistan, and is now the UK National Security Advisor spoke on ‘International Governance and the Future of the Nation State.’

Little else can be the most relevant topic that must be discussed in context of the current global climate.

“Currently, in the world, and according to the outcome of various economic policies, it appears as if the policies adopted are the best. Life expectancy seems to be increasing, and massive numbers of people have been pulled out of poverty,” he said. “But what is threatening is the reversal of rule based international order.”

Quoting examples from history, Sir Grants showed how the global financial crisis of 2008 contested the faith of many in ‘capitalism’.

Talking about international governance, he referred to the US-China geopolitical tussle as the most dominant in the international political sphere. “The concept of a nation state is soon about to end, with Saarc and EU, minimising the power of national governments,” he said.

He added that data was the new power, and that multinational companies were weakening the power of countries. “Today cryptocurrencies have been established to minimise government control over currency.”

In a session, Digital Pakistan: Making It Happen, it was highlighted that the growth of e-commerce had been extensive in the last 20 years.

The panelists included Mudassir Aqil, CEO of Easypaisa/Telenor Microfinance Bank, Imran Ali Khan, the co-founder of Zameen.Com, Muneeb Maayr, the co-founder/CEO of Bykea and Daraz, Usman Gul, the co-founder of Airlift, with Monis Rehman, CEO and co-founder of Rozee, Finja and EasyTickets.

Mr Aqueel said that the Telenor Microfinance Bank was the most efficient way of distributing finances digitally, and discussed how the fourth industrial revolution was changing the world once again.

Mr Muneeb who started his career through outsourcing highlighted the hurdles Daraz faced in its early days. He said it made shopping easier for Pakistanis and as a product-focused person, he explained how he could solve digitisation-related issues.

Mr Usman Gul spoke about the distance related problems being bridged economically thanks to Airlift.

“Its all about how technology can be used to solve problems,” he said.

In a session titled New Media: Scopes and Challenges, journalist Owais Tohid said that in new media the real issue remained about ‘no-go areas’.

“Censorship imposed and unimpeded are bigger threats,” he said. “Some threats are exaggerated but we cannot dent the facts. The real problem is during primetime when the media holds courts.”

TV anchor Maria Memon, speaking about selection of the panel during talk show discussions, said some guests made it very clear of their personal like and dislike towards TV anchors and channels. This includes political personalities and even parties as a whole boycotting certain channels or anchors.

“Everyone is fighting their own private editorial battle every single day,” she said. “Even if you want to maintain neutrality you cannot garner enough attention and that is a challenge in the current world. Today people are aware of which channel to tune to, in order to get their desired political narrative.”

Mansoor Ali Khan said the media on the whole acted cowardly. “The real threat is to the reporters on ground but who among us knows about them?” he asked. “How many people have come out on streets against the impunity with which journalists have been targeted and killed?”

Moderator Fahd Husain said that in a sea of mediocrity, an island of excellence is needed. “This poses a question that in this environment what sort of expectations are associated with journalism?” he asked. “There have been different ways in which media space has shrunk throughout the decades. How much of that space is left today?”

In another session, where Husain was a panelist, he spoke on a similar theme about the need and absence of public interest news. He said Pakistan was missing out in having an outlet that was meant to provide public service news, like the BBC for example. “PTV is run by public funds in part because a part of our utility bill goes to them, yet they have rarely provided public interest news to the people,” he said.

“That is unfortunate because PTV can be instrumental in creating excellent news content for the people without any agenda. But it has always been considered as a state broadcast channel.”

He said that once editors could assume to know what people wanted to see and read, but today digital media had changed all these assumptions. It was also time that some balance was found regarding what the public wanted and what they should be shown.

Sara Gulzar, a Chevening fellow and multimedia journalist, said often reporting for foreign channels and publications was a luxury for local journalists because they had the freedom to report, to travel and at the same time not to follow any agenda. BBC Urdu was a good example for this, and the fact that BBC was available in 40 languages showed how much of a public news provider it was.

Journalist Aroosa Shaukat, also a Chevening fellow, said t was inevitable that in the absence of a public broadcaster, there was a rise of the private broadcasters, who were assumed to fill in the gap.

“What we are left with are two extreme situations and each with their own agenda,” she pointed out. “Besides the fact that media houses are not really into public interest journalism, even journalists in the newsroom are challenged because they have to create content that must go viral.”

Fahd Husain identified the types of fake news, including the one which was outright a lie, another where the context was twisted, and yet another which was fake due to sheer lack of fact verification.

“In Pakistan’s case, because of the digital mass platform there is a combination of all three, and this is dangerous because it is creating toxic narratives on ground,” he said. “The context is driven by an agenda that slants the news.”

Gulzar added that the interest in public news was definitely there – including from those who were not from mainstream communities.

Aroosa Shaukat said there was a rise of “lazy journalism”, where facts were not being verified by reporters. “Today things are being decided on Twitter, instead of assemblies,” she said, referring to fake news.

Published in Dawn, January 12th, 2020