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Forced Off TV, Pakistani Journalists Build New Audiences on YouTube

A wave of journalist firings hits Pakistani media after Imran Khan's ouster as prime minister.

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Imran Khan at a political rally in 2014. 
Asif Hassan/Getty Images

When Imran Riaz Khan lost his job as an anchor at Pakistan's Samaa TV a week ago, he joined a growing list of journalists who've found themselves out of work amid the country's political turmoil. 

Luckily, Riaz Khan has a YouTube channel with 2.6 million subscribers to fall back on. 

Over the past two years, Riaz Khan carefully cultivated his online viewership, racking up more than 650 million views as he held forth on Pakistan's often combustible politics. As an effort to oust the prime minister mounted, views to his channel spiked. 

"The other day you, the new government, removed me from my position," Riaz Khan told his viewers in a video posted on April 12, accusing the new government of threatening to arrest him. "Do you think I'm going to be silent? I will talk and I will continue to say whatever is right."

Emails to the PML-N party, which runs the new government, bounced back. The party didn't respond to efforts to reach it through social media.

A new administration means upheaval in Pakistan's punchy media world. So when the opposition succeeded in ousting Prime Minister Imran Khan, a charismatic former cricket star, Riaz Khan and other presenters who'd supported his administration found themselves out of jobs. Rather than dusting off their resumes, however, Pakistan's TV journalists are turning to YouTube and other online platforms to reach the country's growing number of internet users.

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Pakistani journalist and commentator Imran Riaz Khan.

YouTube screenshot by CNET

They will have plenty to talk about. Pakistan has been in the throes of political upheaval since Khan was removed from office. Earlier this week, the former prime minister held a rally of his supporters in Peshawar, a city of 2 million. More than 100 members of his political party resigned from the National Assembly, the lower house of the country's parliament. Continued unrest seems likely, providing material for news presenters who have migrated to YouTube and other online platforms.  

Reporters using the internet to reach an audience after finding themselves on the wrong side of the government isn't unique to Pakistan. In Nicaragua, Confidencial was forced off air last year but found an audience of 350,000 on YouTube. Venezuelan reporter Sergio Novelli used his Facebook presence to kickstart a YouTube channel. 

But the trend is pronounced in Pakistan, the world's fifth most populous country. Prominent presenters, including Nusrat Javed, Murtaza Solangi and Maleeha Hashmey, have lost their positions based on their reporting and viewpoints.

How media is controlled

Talat Hussain, a former presenter for Geo News, says the government, which buys lots of ads to promote its initiatives to the people, can pull ad money from channels, forcing them to take undesirable anchors off air. The government can also tell cable operators to take a channel off air or use threats of legal action to push out unwanted voices, he says. 

Hussain would know. The TV reporter was let go during Khan's administration after he began questioning the legitimacy of the prime minister's 2018 election victory. That, he says, "didn't sit well" with Khan's government, prompting Geo News to fire him.

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Pakistani journalist Talat Hussain.

YouTube screenshot by CNET

When Hussain was let go, he tried to move to print publications, but the Pakistani government followed him there as well, he says. The Pakistani government pressured Gulf News and The Independent Urdu not to publish his work, according to Hussain. 

So Hussain started seriously looking at his YouTube channel. Now he works the channel, which has 198,000 subscribers, and his Facebook page like a business. Hussain also works as a consultant.

"I get my YouTube production seven days a week," Hussain said, adding that he hadn't missed a day in two years. "You got to be consistent in order to build a strong base that is interested in listening to you."

Imran Khan's party, PTI, didn't respond to requests for comment. Neither Geo News nor The Gulf News responded to a request for comment. The Independent Urdu didn't provide a comment.

Rise of internet in Pakistan

Though television remains popular, the population is increasingly coming online, in part because of smartphones. A little more than a third of Pakistan, about 83 million people, is online and internet usage is growing smartly. 

That means TV presenters turning to online platforms are finding a larger audience. 

Imran Khan at a rally in 2008.

Imran Khan at a 2008 rally.

Arif Ali/Getty Images

Since starting his YouTube channel in January 2020, Essa Naqvi, who formerly reported for two of Pakistan's biggest TV channels, has grown an audience of 116,000 subscribers.

"More people know me from my YouTube channel," Naqvi said. "That's strange."

Part of the appeal may be that Navqi's videos are in Urdu, drawing viewership from more than 9 million Pakistani expats. About 60% of his viewers are outside of Pakistan, with the US being his biggest market. The UK, India, UAE and Saudi Arabia are also big markets for him. 

Of course, news on YouTube is a mixed bag. Journalists discussing sensitive topics can quickly find their content demonetized, cutting their revenue. The popular video platform has also been a source of misinformation, prompting more than 80 fact-checking organizations to call on YouTube to do a better job moderating content. 

YouTube tries to balance free expression by the creators of its videos with the needs of advertisers that place promotions within that content, the service said in a statement. The company says it allows for full monetization when topics are discussed in a news or educational context. It acknowledged that its algorithmic content moderation can make mistakes and said it allows video makers to request a review by a person.

People in power also use YouTube effectively. Imran Khan's party had a sophisticated team putting together videos and posts across its social media channels, which helped it win a following among expats, urbanites and younger voters. 

No editorial oversight

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Pakistani journalist Essa Naqvi.

YouTube screenshot by CNET

Not all YouTube news outlets have the same experience and training as Hussain and Naqvi, and may lack the editorial checks found at print or television organizations. Haqeeqat TV, for example, often leans into a tabloid presentation of images and videos narrated with talking points. It doesn't identify or show its presenter. 

Haqeeqat TV says it's a legitimate news outlet and notes that other print and electronic publications cite its stories when it breaks news.

"Our content has been checked by our team and verified by reliable sources," a representative said in a direct message on Twitter.

Sajjad Malik, a Pakistani journalist who wrote a thesis on the role of media in Indian and Pakistani relations, says the adoption of YouTube is good for the displaced journalists but could be bad for the profession. To prevent that, he says, the country's YouTube presenters should create a standard by which they all abide. 

"If you are giving people trash, then you're not going to survive and ultimately it will bring a bad name for journalism," Malik said.