Regional and Linguistic Diversity in Pakistan and Its Impact on Media and ICT Use



Pakistan is a multicultural, multi-lingual and multi-ethnic society that also hosts one of the largest refugee populations in the world. In addition, there is a fair amount of geographic diversity across the country, as well as differing levels of education, literacy and socio-economic development. All of these factors affect use of media and ICTs.

As such, the survey featured four states: Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province. Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Pakistan Administered Kashmir (known in Pakistan as Azad Kashmir) were excluded from this survey.

The majority of southern Pakistan’s population lives along the Indus River. Karachi is the most populous city in Pakistan. In the northern half, most of the population lives in an arc formed by the cities of Faisalabad, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Gujranwala, Sialkot, Nowshera, Swabi, Mardan and Peshawar. Although the survey included an equal proportion of urban and rural residents, the Population Reference Bureau reports that 35 percent of Pakistanis live in urban areas. There are several differences observed within urban and rural populations, which will be highlighted within each region below.

Each state has a distinct ethnic profile, although Punjabis are the largest ethnic group, followed by Pashtuns (mainly from Northwest Frontier Province) and Sindhis. There are also has six major languages (Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, Saraiki, Urdu and Baluchi) and over 59 other languages. [1] Ninety seven percent of the survey respondents identified themselves as Muslim; Pakistan has the second largest Muslim population in the world.

Pakistan has two national languages- Urdu and English. Urdu, which is considered the lingua franca among the cultural/ethnic groups. Most people in Pakistan speak Urdu, but only 12 percent of survey respondents claim Urdu as their mother tongue(generally not ethnically Pakistani and belong to immigrant Muhajir groups). [2] However rapid urbanization and modernization is leading to increased use of Urdu, especially among the growing urbanized middle class. Many also speak it as their second language (see Table 2 below).

Table 2: A Snapshot of the Linguistic Diversity within the States

BBC Pakistan 2008: survey of adults (15+) n= 4020

English is second national language, and is also known as Pakistan’s official language. It is widely used in governmental affairs, by the civil service and among military officer ranks, as well as in business. Pakistan’s constitution and laws are also written in English. Many schools, and nearly all colleges and universities, use English as the medium of instruction. Among the more educated social circles of Pakistan, English is seen as the language of upward social mobility (although very few people speak it even today). In fact the survey shows a link between income, education levels and the ability to understand English. Respondents in Sindh and Punjab were most likely to understand English (see Table 2 above).

Ironically, a consequence of Urdu’s status as the national language has been ethnic resistance to using it. That said, Urdu is indeed the most widely understood language and perhaps the major medium of interaction in the urban areas of the country. Even ethnic activists agree that it could be a useful link language between different ethnic groups. However, they also believe that it has led to a privileging of a of a language that did not have an ethnic base in Pakistan, by the ruling elite at the centre. This causes significant resistance, especially when the primary languages of major ethnic groups such as Punjabi and Sindhi do not enjoy any official status in the country. [3] In addition, most major nationwide media outlets use Urdu or English as their principal language of broadcast/publication. In this socio-cultural environment, ethnic activists also observe that speakers of many of the major and minor languages are also decreasing.

Regional Focus


Sindh and Punjab are the most economically advanced states in Pakistan. Residents also tend to be better educated. As a result we see greater access and use of media and ICTs in both these states.

Chart 1 shows the urban and rural rates of access to various media sources and ICTs. As shown, the rural-urban divide is most pronounced for access to Cable/satellite TV, the internet, landline telephones and computers.

Chart 1

Chart 2 shows household access to the same media and ICT devices, analyzed along with differing income levels in all states. Access to mobile phones in Sindh increases sharply as income rises (Chart 2).

Urban residents in Sindh lead all populations in either rural or urban areas of Pakistan in access (both “anywhere” and at home) to computers and the internet.

Chart 2

Even though, more than 90 percent of both urban and rural residents of Sindh have access to television anywhere, there is significant disparity between urban and rural respondents in terms of weekly television viewership (see Charts 1 and 3).

Chart 3

Radio use is higher in rural areas than in urban ones (see chart 3), despite the fact that both urban and rural dwellers have nearly equal access to a radio anywhere.


Though television access “anywhere” is high for both urban and rural residents, cable connections and satellite dishes are mainly in urban areas – rural dwellers have very little access anywhere.

Chart 4

Twenty five percent of urban respondents said they have access to internet. However, actual monthly use is much lower than overall internet access (“available anywhere”) (compare charts 4 and 6).

Income level and location (urban/rural) affect household access rates. Chart 5 shows household access to the same media and ICT devices, analyzed along with differing income levels in Punjab.

Chart 5

Punjab respondents have much lower access to radio at home or anywhere than any other state, In addition, Punjab also has lowest radio listenership if we compare with other states.

Urban respondents in Punjab have the second highest access to internet when compared to other urban or rural populations in any other state (Sindh has highest). However this has not translated into equivalent periodic use (Compare charts 4 and 6). There are differences observed between men and women as well-men in both states have much greater access and use. (See more on gender divide in Pakistan).

Chart 6

Newspaper readership doubles from rural to urban residents in Punjab.


Baluchistan, which is less economically developed than Punjab and Sindh, shows lower access to and use of media and ICTs. In addition, as is characteristic of Pakistan in general, income levels affect access. Urban-rural divides are especially stark in Baluchistan (see chart 7 and 10).

Chart 7

Radio access “anywhere” (chart 7) is greater in rural areas. In fact radio access at home, chart 8, seems to decrease with rising incomes (chart 8 shows lesser access for high income respondents than for low or middle income ones). With radio listenership as well, there is a 16 percentage point difference between urban and rural residents in Baluchistan (see chart 9), with rural residents being bigger listeners.

Baluchistan shows disparity between urban and rural respondents when it comes to access to mobile phones anywhere. Access to television and cable/satellite TV in particular is deeply correlated with one’s urban or rural location (see chart 7).

Chart 8

Income levels correlate to household access to media and ICT devices (chart 8).

Chart 9

Newspaper readership is four times greater among urban residents than rural residents, representing the starkest disparity in urban-rural readership among all the states. Overall internet use and access (at home or anywhere) in Baluchistan and in North-West Frontier Province (see below) is negligible in urban and rural locations.

North-West Frontier Province (NWFP)

Chart 10

There is little disparity between urban and rural residents of NWFP who have access to mobile phones anywhere (chart 10), but greater disparities are observed in terms of income levels for those who have mobile phone access at home (chart 11).

Television access anywhere (chart 10) seems similar for both urban and rural residents in NWFP. Access at home, is a slightly different story. Those with high incomes are most likely to have televisions at home. Cable connections and satellite televisions especially seem affordable only to those with high incomes (chart 11).

Chart 11

Radio listener rates are higher in rural NWFP and Baluchistan. Pakistanis in both provinces, particularly those living outside the two provincial capitals, have limited access to other sources of news and information.

Interestingly, newspaper readership does not fluctuate with urban and rural locations as much as it does in other states.

Chart 12

In rural regions, where cable and satellite television is rare, television viewers generally watch Pakistan Television (PTV) – the state run television. (See more about Pakistani media outlets here).

Within the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP, renamed Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa in early 2010), household mobile phone access is substantially lower in urban areas than in other provinces. Potential causes for this disparity include the province’s comparatively lower level of economic development and the fact that the area has been the site of violent incursions by both religious extremists and the Pakistani military. As an area of continued insecurity, the NWFP has also been the scene of large scale migrations of its citizens, which has severely limited commercial activity.

For Development Practitioners:

  1. Television and mobile phones remain the best way to target majority of the population. However if one needs to reach disenfranchised and poorer populations in rural areas, than radio may be the most effective medium.

  2. In urban areas cable and satellite television may be used, although for rural television watchers, state run terrestrial channels (PTV) might be more effective (See television viewership of top 5 channels by state below). Click here for more information on specific outlets.

  3. Table 3: TV Viewership by Demographics
    Percent who had watched this television channel in the previous week. Figures represent percentages.

    [1] According to CIA Factbook the main ethnic groups are: Punjabi 48%, Sindhi 12%, Siraiki (a Punjabi variant) 10%, Pashtu 8%, Urdu (official) 8%, Balochi 3%, Hindko 2%, Brahui 1%, English (official; lingua franca of Pakistani elite and most government ministries), Burushaski, and other 8%

    [2] Mohajirs: Urdu-speaking Muslim refugees , called Muhajirs, who migrated to Pakistan from migrants from different parts of South Asia – Bangladesh, Burma, India etc, who, upon independence or after independence, migrated to Pakistan).

    [3] “Managing Ethnic Diversity and Federalism in Pakistan”, Muhammad Mushtaq, Department of Political Science & International Relations, B. Z.University Multan, Pakistan available at and “Language policy, multilingualism and language vitality in Pakistan”, Tariq Rahman, Quaid-i-Azam University, available at

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