AARHUS (Denmark): Even on their best days, small media outlets such as the ‘Owl Media’ on YouTube never earned views in thousands like they did last weekend.

For the news industry, it was a busy weekend indeed as an alliance of 11 opposition parties, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), staged two power shows in Gujranwala and Karachi.

However, viewers soon drifted online when television broadcast of the Gujranwala event was interrupted as convicted former prime minister and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz supremo Nawaz Sharif took over screen from London.

Editorial: PDM rally in Karachi made it clear that news channels were being told who to show, who to black out

The live broadcast of the #PDMGujranwalaJalsa on Friday drew over 1.9 million viewers on Maryam Nawaz’s official Facebook page alone. The link shared by Ms Nawaz has generated over 264,304 interactions.

Live broadcast of PDM’s Gujranwala rally drew over 1.9m viewers on Maryam’s Facebook page alone

The event was streamed live by political parties and supporters across social platforms, including on YouTube and Twitter’s Periscope. While mainstream media has been restrained from giving airtime to Mr Sharif by Pemra, business was booming for digital news outlets and YouTube channels who marketed on exclusive streaming of the “full speech”.

In addition, clips of Mr Sharif’s speeches went viral on WhatsApp as #PDMGujranwalaJalsa continued to trend on Saturday on Facebook and Twitter, with ‘Nawaz Sharif’ being the top searched keyword.

Google chart

Although there is no way of measuring exactly how many people streamed the event or watched its clips on social media, for the 87 million internet users of Pakistan, there was no dearth of avenues to watch the address online.

“I started live tweeting the two jalsas as a result of requests from viewers who wanted to follow live updates online. I feel definitely people are now aware of where to get an online link and find a better live stream,” Zeibunnisa Burki told Dawn.

“The Friday jalsa saw Mian Nawaz Sharif’s full speech ignored by the TV media. On Sunday, voices from the peripheries (Mohsin Dawar, Akhtar Mengal, Mehmood Achakzai) got the axe,” she said.

Ms Burki, who was posting live updates from the two rallies on Twitter, said she was directed to livestreams by profiles with barely a follower or two, adding that people were now realising the limitations of mainstream media and were aware how it was controlled.

Does it work?

Access to information may not be a hindrance for over a third of the country’s population that is online, but does it surpass viewership of TV channels?

“Though social media does not have the same reach as TV by virtue of limited internet penetration, censorship on TV certainly leads to censored bits being shared more,” said Usama Khilji, director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy and research group.

According to Mr Khilji, when someone shares something saying that it had been ‘censored’, it generates more curiosity and attracts attention.

“It’s basic human psyche. So certainly, censorship is counterproductive,” he added.

While more people may not have access to internet in Pakistan, social media’s impact on politics is becoming more and more evident under the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s government.

“Despite the fact that the [speech] was censored on mainstream media, we saw a reaction on it from the government officials, including Prime Minister Imran Khan himself,” said Umer Ali, a researcher looking into Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement’s use of social media for political messaging.

“The movement’s supporters took to social media to organise protests, pull the national conversation and get space in mainstream media despite a ban on coverage. Social media does have a profound impact on political discourse,” he said.

Published in Dawn, October 21st, 2020

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