Cyber-Demonstrations: E-Resistance Blooms in Pakistan

By Manjeet Kripalani

With the media muzzled, citizens are blogging and using sites like Facebook to spread news and organize "flash" protests against Musharraf's emergency rule.

Supporters of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto try to remove barbed wires during a pro-democracy protest last week in Islamabad. As police in Pakistan continue to subdue demonstrators, the protest has moved into cyberspace.
AFP

Supporters of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto try to remove barbed wires during a pro-democracy protest last week in Islamabad. As police in Pakistan continue to subdue demonstrators, the protest has moved into cyberspace.

On Nov. 7 at 2 p.m., about 1,000 students of the Lahore University of Management Sciences, the most elite business school in Pakistan, gathered to protest the imposition of virtual martial law by President Pervez Musharraf and the arrests and beatings of many lawyers. The students, mostly children of Pakistan's intelligentsia and middle classes, were horrified to hear that on Nov. 4, the day after Musharraf imposed the rule of emergency on his country, police had broken into a peaceful meeting inside the premises of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and dragged away over 70 of Lahore's best minds, including lawyer and human rights activist Asma Jehangir, and locked them in jail or put them under house arrest. A complete blackout of cable television -- the most pervasive medium in Pakistan -- radio, and the Urdu press had blocked images from public view, but word spread. The students decided to participate in the protests.

That's when the blogging began. On Nov. 5, the Emergency Times (and an attendant Wikipedia article) appeared. It declared itself "an independent Pakistani student initiative against injustice and oppression," which gave readers a regular update and comments on the emergency, and student activities against it across Pakistan. It announced that there would be a protest by LUMS students on Nov. 7 at 2 p.m., as also at FAST-NU, a technical university in Lahore. This was followed by Metroblogging Lahore and Metroblogging Karachi, all of which began to post comments about the emergency and its impact in Pakistani cities.

Facebook users joined in. Under Event Info, the Students Protest for a Free Pakistan put out the word to students of Islamabad's Hamdard University to gather outside the college, in support of other protesting students at LUMS, as well as Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad and Punjab University in Lahore, all simultaneously at 2 p.m. on Nov. 7. The Facebook tagline: "The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall." And in the description of the event, this is what the group had to say: "The time has COME for us students to stand up against the tyranny of a dictator. We must join hands with the countless citizens already protesting for our safety…and protest for our rights…to protect what is ours, and not someone else's to hijack."

Calling on the Student Community

The Nov. 7 protests were, by any standard, a huge success. The police charged the students with batons inside their campuses, arrested economics professors, laid siege to students in their classrooms, and seized media cameras and equipment. But the students stuck around till darkness began to fall. A. Moiz Penkar, a Facebook participant, wrote in excitement upon his return: "Just came back from there. Made me very sad but hopeful. Big thumbs up to everyone who came!" Metroblogging Lahore ended its reportage of the day by saying: "We call upon the entire student community of Pakistan to rise up. Together, we will take this to its inevitable conclusion. In Complete Unity."

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Pakistan may be under military siege, but its citizens have found a place to make themselves heard through the sophisticated use of the Internet. An unexpected but robust underground e-resistance movement is under way in Pakistan -- from blogs, to flash mobs, to e-mails, to streaming video broadcasts, to cell-phone multimedia and text messages. Pakistan's student community may be made up of young members of the country's elite, but they have become a vital addition to the lawyers' democracy movement. The students, and Pakistan's independent media—like the Geo, Aaj, and ARY television channels -- have moved rapidly to the Internet to disseminate news and information locally, as much as possible, and to galvanize the Pakistani diaspora and international community. "It's not really the ingenuity of the medium, but citizens' journalism coming out in unprecedented force," says Kiran Khalid, a New York-based American-Pakistani freelance reporter working on a documentary on media censorship in Pakistan.

Indeed, the LUMS protest sparked one in Boston at the same time, thanks to Facebook. News of a protest by opposition leader Benazir Bhutto sparked one in London, led by Jemima Khan, the former wife of another opposition leader, Imran Khan, who is under house arrest. Since the weekend, students have been holding "flash" protests in Karachi, the country's commercial capital. Through cell-phone text messages, students have been gathering, 10 at a time, across the city, shouting protest slogans, and disappearing quickly before the police arrive. If it sounds like a youth gimmick, consider the dangers involved. A student flash mob could find itself in hostile territory, liable to arrest.

Relying on Text Messages

Indeed, for ordinary Pakistanis, the cell-phone text message has proved a saving grace, one not yet withdrawn by Musharraf. Internet penetration in Pakistan is low, but Pakistan is one of the world's fastest-growing cell-phone markets, with user numbers growing 73 percent this past year. The country of 160 million currently has 67 million cellular subscribers, and, according to Pakistan watchers, in the past week many Pakistanis have been sending and receiving at least 10 text messages a day from relatives overseas who watch the international news on Pakistan and feed the information back home. A conservative estimate of 500 million text messages a day is a bonanza for cell-phone operators.

Leading the information dissemination charge, however, are Web sites, the most popular being pkpolitics.com. The site, run from London, posts original daily news updates, newspaper Web sites, and streaming video interviews by Pakistan's most popular -- and now gagged -- television hosts, Talat Hussain of Aaj TV and Hamid Mir of Geo TV. They continue to report in Pakistan. Very quickly after their channels were pulled off the air, they found a way to film, record, and ship the stories out via Dubai, where it is beamed to the world via cable TV and the Internet. Pakistanis are buying satellite dishes in record numbers, even though the government has tried to stop their sales. Musharraf has accused the reporters of sedition and potentially aiding terrorism with their reporting. They could face trial by military court without representation. Already, attempts have been made to block the online site of The News, a leading English-language paper, and the owner of Jhang, an Urdu daily critical of Musharraf, has been threatened.

Expatriate Pakistanis have helped keep up the pressure on foreign governments. Ali Ahsan is a New York lawyer and son of Aitzaz Ahsan, Pakistan's top lawyer, who represented the deposed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and is now languishing in solitary confinement in a Rawalpindi prison. He says the Internet has been vital for the diaspora, especially in the US, to connect with one another and with their local senators and congressmen, who can weigh in on Washington's Pakistan policy. "The lawyers are Pakistan's Buddhist monks for the moment," he says, making a reference to the leaders of the opposition in Burma.

Expat Experts Doing Their Part to Help

Anil Kalhan, a professor of law at Fordham Law School in New York, runs his own Web site and has been writing on the legality of Musharraf's moves for Asia Media as well as blogging on Dorf on Law, which he says has attracted some attention from the local legal community.

Finally, there is the quaint chapatimystery.com Web site run by Manan Ahmed, a Pakistani PhD student at the University of Chicago studying the Arab invasions of India. His site is rich with pictures of the protests against Musharraf, and he is passionate about his mission. "With the media being muzzled, there will be lots of rumor and misinformation spread through official sources in Pakistan," he says. "The Internet is keeping this agitation alive, and this is very, very important, because when the next catalyst for change against Musharraf surfaces" -- and it could be the chief justice, the students, or the exiled opposition leader Nawaz Sharif -- "there will be accurate information out there for them to rely on."

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