Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Yet there isn’t much sunlight being thrown on local government in Pakistan. The major media outlets focus their coverage on national politics or the big cities. As a result, people in rural areas lack a crucial lever to hold their local officials to account. 

Enter the news site tumbhibolo, which launched an Urdu service in the fall of 2016 with the support of the Accountability Lab. The site recruits young people to cover local issues in three districts of Punjab province that are largely ignored by the national media. The goal: to equip citizens to speak truth to power so that government officials serve the public’s – rather than their own – interests.  

The news site, which has a mix of paid and volunteer staff, notched a string of successes in its first 18 months that would make any news organization proud. Here’s a sample of the impact journalism it’s turning out:

  • A series of stories uncovered the mismanagement of a government program to support wheat farmers in Punjab province. Farmers couldn’t get their hands on the wheat bags required to participate in the program because bureaucrats were unlawfully selling them to middlemen. The stories prompted a surprise visit by Punjab province’s chief minister to a wheat procurement center and the suspension of several employees.
  • An investigation delved into the years-long delay in the construction of public gymnasium in the city of Pakpattan. Tumbhibolo found that the contractor had ceased work in order to extract money from the government. It built a social media campaign around the story, which was picked up by Pakistan’s largest television broadcaster DAWN and other national media outlets. Under pressure, the government agreed to give the contract to a new builder.
  • Another story revealed that a new toll-free hotline in Punjab province to report child labor practices has been deactivated since March 2018. Further, the government has no record of the number of complaints they have received or resolved. Tumbhibolo has filed a complaint with the Punjab Information Commission, which must respond within 60 days

The site, which prefers to train citizen journalists rather than hire professionals, is not looking for a monopoly on content. “We are trying to educate citizens that they should use their own social media platforms to highlight the waste of tax funds or corruption,” Imtiaz Ahmad Watto, the site’s editor-in-chief and a participant in the Accountability Incubator Pakistan, said.

Whoever is producing it, high-quality news articles, videos, features, and investigations require resources. With the help of the Accountability Incubator in Pakistan, Watto secured $25,000 in funding from the U.S.-based nonprofit Internews in order to cover staff salaries and other expenses for its first eighteen months. But the site will need more funding in order to continue its aggressive coverage of local issues.  

The Accountability Lab’s incubator knows the vital role of high-quality, impartial journalism in a prosperous and just society. If international donors who support democratic freedoms, economic opportunity, and human rights aim to improve lives in places like Pakistan, they must find ways to provide resources and professional support to news organizations like Tumbhibolo.

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