By Sonya Rehman
When General Pervez Musharraf overthrew the Pakistani government in 1999 and established himself as the country’s tenth President, little did the Pakistani media industry know that in the years to come, it would undergo a monumental metamorphosis.
A few years into his Presidency, and local television and radio licenses were handed out generously. Suddenly, private television channels and radio stations began broadcasting their programs on the national hook-up. Swiftly, Pakistan found itself in the midst of a media explosion that had far-reaching effects, which continue to this day.
Foreign journalists were brought in from well-known, international media houses to train budding Pakistani journalists, colleges and universities began incorporating media studies and journalism courses into their undergraduate and graduate programs. And after the craze of pursuing a degree in IT and business had cooled, careers in broadcast and print journalism were fast gaining popularity amongst fresh graduates, and even, mid-career professionals. Working for a media house was the ‘in’ thing, and hey, the money was good.
But on November 3, 2007, the liberalization of Pakistan’s media environment came to a halt. President Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency in the country: He fired the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and barred the transmission of private television channels.
As a result of the media clampdown, some Pakistanis sought alternative means of spreading information. Many turned to blogging. They sent photographs, videos, and let off some steam on forums and websites. A few young professionals began working on a portal — a Pakistani citizen journalism website. The result, “SeenReport” (http://seenreport.com/), was launched in 2008, enabling citizens to share news on the go from their cell phones, via SMS, MMS and e-mail.
Yaser Awan, a co-founder of SeenReport, believes that, “through social feedback, citizen journalism and community-driven efforts, people can achieve big things such as eradicating corruption.”
Filling a Void
SeenReport cut its teeth during the country’s historic “Long March” movement, formed in response to the ouster of the Chief Justice along with the dismissal of the country’s senior judges. Local media had been banned from covering the Long March. The actual march took place in March 2009, with thousands participating. The movement calling for a restoration of democracy, the resignation of Musharraf, and the reinstatement of judges to their posts was fast gaining momentum.
“We decided to build a centralized reporting portal where common people could report eye-witness accounts. Our portal enables people to report what they see, where and when they see it,” said Adil Saleem, another SeenReport co-founder. “We launched the first public beta version during the Long March (http://longmarch.seenreport.com/) and received tremendous response where common people, lawyers, students and activists provided mile-by-mile coverage of the march all over Pakistan. The coverage was, by far, the largest source of people-powered news and gained immediate attention from bloggers, writers, national and even international media organizations.”
SeenReport was off and running. Saleem describes the portal’s users as a mix of people: “students, freelance journalists, activists, university professors and NGOs.” Today, citizen journalists on the website report on not only politics, but also education, art, sports and entertainment. Events covered recently include a rally held in retaliation against the brutal lynching of two young brothers (in Sialkot), the flood crisis and the technology event, TED, held in Lahore.
The Rise of Grassroots Journalism
In Pakistan, citizen journalism is a relatively new phenomenon. Social networking and blogging tools such as WordPress, Blogspot, Flickr, Orkut, Facebook and Twitter have been used as virtual podiums for freedom of speech and expression, but outside of SeenReport, Pakistani portals specifically designed for citizen journalism are few and far between. Yet, citizen journalism websites are beginning to gain popularity within the country — primarily in Pakistan’s urban areas by literate and semi-literate Pakistanis who understand the technological usage of mobiles, computers and the Internet.
On a macro scale, it is only over the past two to three years that local media organizations have really woken up to the importance of getting ordinary citizens to be an active part of the news, rather than just consumers. For example, local dailies such as DAWN and The Express Tribune now have separate blog sections for their websites that encourage submissions from Pakistanis who need not necessarily be journalists.
According to Yaser Awan, another co-founder of SeenReport: “Many big media houses have realized the importance of citizen media and are working towards making their transmissions more citizen powered. Pakistani media is making a transition from traditional media to modern media.”
SeenReport is assisting directly in this transition. Since its inception, news organizations have used SeenReport’s technology to facilitate their own user-generated content. The technology has been used by national television channels such as GEO TV, SAMAA and AAJTV.
Saleem believes that people want to be able to make and contribute to the news. “Citizen journalism is becoming a well-known phrase in Pakistan and user-generated content is making its way to news organizations as a medium to complement mainstream media,” says Saleem. “News is becoming a two-way street rather than the old, one-way communication street.”
In Pakistan, the flood crisis is a prime example of how social networking and citizen journalism has played a crucial role in rehabilitation efforts and awareness.
Not only has citizen journalism enabled internet users in Pakistan to be active participants of the news, but the increase in popularity of citizen media has also given rise to the empowerment of the ordinary Pakistani citizen. It has given him a voice.