Historically, Pakistani governments have been known for limiting access to information by their citizens. However with the emergence of social media, the situation is changing. Social media activists are becoming vocal and spreading information that was otherwise impossible to publish in the traditional forms.
Blogosphere has transformed the debate around democracy and access to information in Pakistan. Express Tribune was one of the pioneering newspapers that took a bold step and allowed its readers to comment on news published online. Its blog became an extremely powerful tool for disseminating user-generated content to a wider public. Now all major newspapers and television channels have active blogs.
Following are several examples of how social media is helping frame debates around sensitive topics in Pakistan.
To deal with the heavy-handedness of the government when it comes to information access, a group of journalism students started a blog called Pakistan Media Watch. The blog is aimed at initiating debates around controversial stories published in Pakistani media. They were extremely vocal, for instance, about killings and persecution of Pakistani journalists that all too often go unpunished.
Few people will recall that in mid-2010, after a provincial court order, Facebook and Youtube were banned in Pakistan. Sana Saleem, a social media activist wrote a blog in Pakistan’s largest circulating English daily Dawn:
“This is a sad day for new media in Pakistan. While many claim this to be a ‘victory’ against the offensive campaign, I feel at loss. The ban frenzy has only created a win-win situation for extremists on both sides. Instead of allowing people to opt for deactivating their accounts and registering their protests in the way they want, we have been forced to act like sheep once again, forced to jump on a bandwagon, and bear the burden of the perception that we are in fact an intolerant society.”
In a similar vein, Jehan Ara, President of Pakistan Software Houses Association (P@SHA) wrote on her personal blog:
“Nothing justifies the taking away of my right to access information online or offline, to use the networks I want to. I don’t need the government to make such decisions for me. I am quite capable of doing that for myself. If I want to protest against something I find offensive, I will (and I do). The PTA [Pakistan Telecommunication Authority] and the courts have no right to deprive me of my freedom to do so.”
The ban was eventually lifted after offensive content was removed, in a significant part thanks to the protests such as these, which pointed out that closing access to the entire social media services is not the right way to handle controversies over content.
A recent proposal by the Information Communication Technology Research and Development Fund (ICTRDF) of the Ministry of Information Technology to install a national-level website filtering system that may be used to further political agendas and curb freedom of expression also encountered stiff resistance from concerned citizens through the social media. According to local press, “The National Level URL Filtering and Blocking System (NLUBS) would help the government block websites systematically, much like the Internet censoring methods adopted by Chinese and Saudi Arabian governments.”
A local initiative Bolo Bhi which means “Speak Up” started a massive social media campaign against the unclear and potentially discriminatory policy by PTA to enable blanket filtering of up to 50 million URLs. Thanks to the efforts of Pakistani social media activists, on the 19th of March this year, local newspapers quoted a member of the National Assembly saying that the ministry reversed its decision and the Secretary in the Ministry of Information Technology admitted that “the URL project has been withdrawn due to the concern shown by various stakeholders.”
Sana Saleem, CEO of Bolo Bhi, in a recent interview gave an overview of the situation of social media activism in Pakistan:
As Sana concludes, “In a society where social spaces are shrinking, social media offers a space to share, interact, and mobilize. It is an enabler. But bridging the great divide between online activism and on the ground actions remains key.”