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Of course, I support the ban on Skype, Viber

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These are crazy times we live in. We are in this war against bloodthirsty, tech-savvy terrorists for the long haul, no holds barred. This fact must be drilled into naive minds who believe a violation of fundamental rights like freedom of expression, right to information and privacy are a gross overstep by the state. We must remember that our brave parliamentarians have already signed off on such stellar legislation as the Pakistan Telecommunications (Re-organisation) Act, 1996, which allows for communication services to be suspended in the name of ‘national security’.

Needless to say, I support and applaud the Sindh government’s move to block and ban Skype, Viber, WhatsApp and Tango. In fact, I am so deeply concerned about the terrorist threat, that, much like the diligent student who compiled a list of 780,000 porn sites for the PTA to ban in 2012, I have come up with a game plan for our security apparatus.

First off, we need to ensure that the current ban on messaging apps is extended to Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest and all other visual-based means of online communication. As Sindh Information Minister Sharjeel Memon so astutely noted, the “hoshyaar” terrorists switched from cellular service to online apps to avoid being tracked — what would prevent them from moving on to the next best alternative? I can already picture terrorists Instagramming their way through our vulnerable urban centres, setting up private Pinterest boards highlighting their favourite sites to bomb. Snapchat, in particular, is a threat, as the fact that exchanged photos exploding on a timer will naturally appeal to the twisted, militant mind. Let us not forget that these networks are also chock-full of young people of questionable moral character; the likelihood of these networks turning into a militant recruiting ground are high.

Ban them all I say, but remember, the ban on thousands of pornographic, blasphemous and anti-state websites has really not panned out, as citizens have turned to proxy servers, virtual private networks and tools such as Spotflux, HotSpot Shield and Tor Browser to circumvent such blocks. All these tools need to be banned and all future tools that allow workaround access to Skype, Viber et al must be banned too; else, this whole effort will be worthless.

I also noted that Memon has called on the federal government to contact the companies mentioned above to provide access to private user data. We all remember how successful the government was with Google on this front, so I recommend against turning to these terrorist-enabling scumbags. Instead, we should remember that our brave parliamentarians have recently signed off on The Investigation for Fair Trial Act 2013, which gives security agencies the authority to collect evidence online “by means of modern techniques and devices”. The Act has thoughtfully included broad definitions of who can be monitored and warrants are issued by a judge in their chamber — a process which is not public record.

Given this excellent legislative cover, I think the government should set up a secret agency comprising several hundred ‘online experts’, whose only job is to sit at the Pakistan Internet Exchange and monitor all these potentially deadly internet packets one by one. Billions of these packets will be unrelated, private exchanges between citizens, but I am sure these messages will provide plenty of fringe benefits to incentivise those carrying out this honourable work.

Once all communication in Pakistan is successfully blocked or monitored, we can then turn our attention to transport networks. Roads are used by terrorists far too often and must be banned. In case anyone feels this plan is ludicrous, we need only turn to Bilawal House to see a successful implementation. Remember, no sacrifice is too great in a time of war.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 5th, 2013.

The future of news is digital

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The mobile and tablet revolution is upon us, faster than we in the media industry can respond. News is becoming more social and more real-time. The future of news is conclusively digital and multiplatform. These are just a few of the key findings of the newly released Digital NewsReport 2013 by Reuters Institute.

Is Pakistan’s media landscape going to be impacted by any, or all of these global trends? Analytics seem to say yes, with mobile phones and tablets already forming a sizable chunk of daily visits to news sites including The Express Tribune and Express’s Urdu portal, with growth at a rate of multiple percentage points per month. A recent report by mobile survey company Ansr.io found that of the 30 million users online in Pakistan, 15 million have browsed the web using their mobile phone, while 11 per cent of 182 million page views in April 2013 were mobile visits.

This is good news for our media industry, for a number of reasons. For one, the Digital NewsReport found that “as people acquire more devices they consume more news in aggregate (time spent) — but also access news more often throughout the day.” For those worried that print editions will die a quick death, the report also somewhat encouragingly points out that across multiple countries measured, an average of 49 per cent of those who accessed news on a tablet said they also read a printed newspaper, at least, once each week. Claimed newspaper purchase (at least once a week) remained high — being strongest in Japan (68 per cent), Italy (59 per cent), and Germany (56 per cent) and lowest in France (39 per cent) and the US (42 per cent). If this holds true for Pakistan, in the next five years, we can expect digital to cause major changes in newsroom structures and workflows, possibly the downfall of a few who fail to adapt, but by and large, digital will only extend the range of options for readers, not replace traditional media for now.

Another finding of the Reuters report that suggests Pakistan is poised for a rapid digital media revolution is the fact that, “younger people are more likely to use social media and aggregator brands and in all countries they show a strong preference for online.” The report found that those under 45 cited the internet as their main source of news as well as their most frequently accessed source. Given that Unicef reports Pakistan’s youth bulge as one of the largest in the world, and the fact that mobile teledensity is 70 per cent of the population as of May 2013, it is likely that the big challenges that face mobile internet — including cost of smartphones and the ability to read — will be overcome very rapidly if young consumers are given half a chance and cheap Chinese-made smartphones.

We can also expect news brands to lose their role as gatekeepers of information as digital becomes more mainstream locally. The Digital News Report found that, “brands are being increasingly dis-intermediated by a growing range of pathways to their content. This is especially the case for light and occasional users and for younger users.” In other words, news brand are not the primary gatekeepers of information anymore. Whether the digital user is reaching a newspaper or TV channel’s content through YouTube, Flipboard, Google, Facebook, Twitter or any number of aggregators, what matters to him/her is finding the content they are seeking, with plenty of alternate options at hand. A seamless digital experience will, for many casual users, trump ‘good’ journalism in the future.

Whether our media deals with the digital revolution in a haphazard, adhoc manner or successfully strategises for a tumultuous future, as the Reuters report concludes, “the overwhelming message is that audiences increasingly expect news that they can access anytime, anywhere … clearly news brands still matter but a strong name and long heritage is no longer enough.”

Published in The Express Tribune, July 25th, 2013.

The state of Pakistani media: 10 toons that tell it like it is

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Note: All information cited in the toons below has been taken from the 2013 report Mapping Digital Media: Pakistan, released by Open Society Foundations.

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Published in Tribune Blogs.

‘How much did they pay you to defame Imran Khan and PTI?’

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It seems The Express Tribune has done it again (see image above). Working on our Goebbels’ vendetta against all things Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, we have now attacked PTI Chairman Imran Khan while he’s down (literally).

The PTI Chairman injured his back just days before the elections.

Can it get any more evil than asking our cartoonist Sabir Nazar to target an injured man, when all he wants to do is go see his children in the UK during the few weeks they get off from school? Who cares if there is wall-chalking up in NA-56 demanding to know where the man they elected is?

This is blasphemy! Sacrilege!

Let’s leave aside the fact that Sabir Nazar is not dictated to, or controlled editorially in what he draws (freedom of speech and all that).

Let’s also leave aside the fact that The Express Tribune is not a single entity, but a collection of many individuals, a large number of whom are pro-PTI (the web desk alone has two thirds staff who voted for PTI. The person editing this piece voted for PTI!).

Let’s not assume that the reason ET focuses so much on the PTI and Imran Khan is because a lot of staffers are interested and invested in how this party develops.

No, let’s focus on reporting the cartoon share on Facebook over 50 times in an attempt to beat ET into submission, or hopefully, have their page shutdown. No kidding, this is actually happening as I’m typing this.

I guess such a childish reaction can be expected from the PTI. We’ve seen such online attacks by the PTI horde before in the form of mass emails clogging up our inboxes. I think there has been enough written about the negative impact of this already. I also think the PTI has made enough attempts to curb this ugly trend online, with little to no success.

It’s time we all accept that this party has at its periphery, a fascist, thug mentality when it comes to the online space.

It’s shameful. We can only hope it doesn’t translate into real-life, though there are already signs of this happening.

I leave the PTI trolls with some more delightful cartoons by Sabir Nazar to rage over!

PS: to answer the question in the headline — I get paid nothing to write blog posts (unless it enters the top five of the week, in which case I get paid Rs1,000). I get a little more for opeds, but you get the picture — anyone who thinks writing pays fantastically with bags full of money being regularly exchanged between political parties and media folk really needs a reality check.

Published in Tribune Blogs.

Movie review: Into Darkness and irrelevance

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I ignored the gaping holes in plot logic. I suspended disbelief as long as I could and tried to match my emotional responses with what the film was trying so hard to make me feel. But I gave up when rogue Starfleet agent John Harrison aka the genetically modified superman Khan Noonien Singh (and a very white Khan at that) says, “My name is Khan…” and members of the audience whisper in response, “…and I am not a terrorist”.

Director JJ Abrams has indeed made a science fiction film, but I would be loath to call it a Star Trek film. It has little of the mystery of space and the wonder of exploration that Star Trek stands for, not to mention a (very Hollywood) injection of what the scriptwriters believe to be socio-political relevance ala a universe on the brink of war.

Aside from the opening sequence of the film, which promised so much Trekkie goodness complete with kooky-looking aliens and a reckless mini-adventure into a volcano, Into Darkness is not about space exploration or the deeper questions of science, man’s existence in the Universe and the ethics of dealing with alien life forms. No, it’s your typical, tired Hollywood cliché of good guys versus terrorists versus corruption within the good guys. It is a political-war drama that resonates well with current times — but I didn’t pay for a political-war drama, did I?

To be clear, the film has some merits, and is worth the money for the ticket. The acting is generally solid despite the deeply flawed script, with particularly outstanding performances from Zachary Quinto as Spock and Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan, who is the real treat of the 129-minute feature. The special effects and 3D are very good, and the film is a visual delight. Unfortunately, just like the recently released The Great Gatsby, fans will walk into the cinema expecting an intelligent handling of a mega-franchise, and walk away feeling entertained, yet hollow and let down. (Warning: spoilers ahead)

I am enticed with promises of a Klingon war. I get about four sentences of Klingon and a total of 15 minutes encountering any alien species at all! I am introduced to a super-hot Carol Marcus, the love interest of Captain Kirk, only to find out she’s less scientist more military-baby with the flimsiest of reasons provided for her motivation to be on board the Starship Enterprise. Keep in mind, Carol is one of a total of two female roles in the entire film. The only other female with a talking role is Uhura, who spends half the film being strong and independent, and the other half as Spock’s whiny girlfriend.

Much of the plot is focused on Captain Kirk coming to terms with what it means to be a true leader and stepping up to that role, all the while building his relationship with his crew, particularly Spock. While Chris Pine does a great job playing the young Kirk, the script lets him down again and again. What we walk away with is a Kirk who is too easily swept along by the events around him, often happening at such a frenetic pace that we cannot appreciate the few tough calls he does make. Also, it seems a true captain is defined by defying gravity in some truly spectacular physical feats, or as film critic Christopher Orr puts it, Kirk is played as “one part Han Solo and two parts Evel Knievel”.

The plot enters a downward spiral the further you get into the film. Is Khan a super-hero or a super-villain? He starts out evil, committing acts of terrorism, but we learn he is fighting a corrupt military regime for the sake of his family. I’m confused, but not the good confused in which you feel a character is complex. Rather, this is confusion borne of poor scriptwriting, and while we do indeed end the film with Khan being declared one of the most dangerous enemies the Star Fleet ever faced (really? That’s it?), I am still rooting for him and his kind.

In the end, Captain Kirk is killed off for all of 15 lackluster minutes in what is a massive dramatic fail. If Abrams had left him dead only to be reincarnated in a third film, that would have been a brave and exciting ending. Instead, what we get is a painfully easy and predictable return of Kirk ala Khan’s blood — and don’t get me started on how poorly executed and forced was the entire side plot of ‘Khan’s blood is magic that revives furry creatures and humans’.

It is clear that Into Darkness is designed to appeal to a mass audience, and that is where it has failed for anyone who is not part of this dumbed-down blob of humanity. For the rest, the film is entertaining enough, visually appealing enough, and in classic Hollywood form, forgettable enough to fade into irrelevance without a second thought.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, June 23rd, 2013.

Google should ban Pakistan

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For a journalist, perhaps nothing is a greater violation of human rights than the denial of access to information. In the case of Pakistan versus YouTube, I think the nine-month ban on Google’s video-sharing website is really the limit of regressive and, in the eyes of any global citizen who accepts the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, unethical and illegal behaviour.

I hold out no hope from the new government in this case.

It is clear that in a country as fragmented along the lines of “haves” versus the “have-nots”, “extremists” versus “the rest”, the ban on YouTube and possibly all of Google, in the near future, is the pragmatic (read: easy) stance to take.

Placate dangerous, religion-intoxicated extremists like Mumtaz Qadri, who are able to act thanks to the high-level of extremism in the average Pakistani, and let the small number of middle class, upper-middle class and elite, who are blessed enough to have access to the internet, suffer. The latter is far less organised and far less likely to start gunning down people in the streets over internet censorship.

Appealing to the government is also a lost cause because those in power benefit greatly from a ban on the internet, which they perceive to be a (quite real) threat.

Additionally, our Constitution is flawed and utterly inadequate when it comes to discussing the web; our media men and judiciary are, by and large, too old, unaware of and/or outright alienated from the online space to truly understand the issue.

Instead, I think, the YouTube ban should be proactively dealt with by Google, which should listen to the plea of ordinary citizens of Pakistan who are its customers, take a principled stand and refuse to negotiate with the government until it stops trampling over the rights of its citizens. Or to coin a childish catchphrase that fits this ridiculous situation — Google should ban Pakistan.

If I’m going to lose my Google products one by one anyway, I’d rather have it done with Google openly refusing to participate in the denial of my basic right to access information on YouTube or through search, rather than have the government place new bans every few months, or worse, Google agreeing to allow me limited access to its products/services.

Facebook has already bowed down to such pressure in the past and my access to some pages and groups is blocked because I am a Pakistani browsing from within the country.

I consider this a sign that Facebook has a sadly regressive streak in its management. To agree to set up such censorship in order to avoid being banned in Pakistan is akin to siding with the extremism and backward thinking that has this nation in its grips. That is not a helpful decision aimed at enhancing democracy — it is an extension of mob rule and a violation of human rights.

Where is my unlike button?

Where is my “If you are a Pakistani citizen but wish to opt out of this blockage, click here” button?

So, stay strong Google. You will not have much support in Pakistan, but your stand will be the right one. As a citizen of this world first, Pakistan second, do not limit my access to YouTube to secure a short-term solution to the ban.

Instead, ban Pakistan till the nation grows up.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 13th, 2013.

By the numbers: Pakistan politics online

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Are 20 million online Pakistanis worth the time and effort it takes to build a winning web presence? Most political parties don’t think so, or possibly they have no idea how to actually do it.

A quick glance online reveals the wide disparity between the major political players. The 2013 elections may have them thinking differently now.

The online presence of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and its emergence as the third largest party in Pakistan may not be altogether unrelated. The online landscape may very well be changing given the reality of the PTI’s success.

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The basics

Total Pakistanis online: 20 million

Total Pakistanis on Facebook: Over 8.5 million

Total Pakistanis on Twitter: 1 million

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Party Website Rank in Pakistan Estimated users per day Estimated pages viewed per day Traffic from inside Pakistan
PTI Insaf.pk 116 19,743 67,125 76%
MQM Mqm.org 835 603 1,320 78%
PML-N Pmln.org 1,473 498 1,195 87%
JI Jamaat.org 3,464 160 400 86%
PPP ppp.org.pk 5,462 176 440 84%
ANP Awaminationalparty.org 11,064 91 190 74%
PML-Q Pml.org.pk 13,955 87 155 84%
APML apmlpak.com 25,998 54 140 77%

Source: Alexa.com, websitetrafficspy.com as of May 24 2013

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Facebook interest Audience
PPP 242,000
PML-N 442,000
PTI 1,200,000
MQM 198,000
JI 400,000
ANP 40,000
PML-Q 14,000
APML 98,000
Source: Facebook.com as of May 24 2013 Note: Facebook interests are based on what users have entered as an interest on their timeline. Only the exact party name was used as keyword for the above stats

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  Name Twitter account Party Followers Klout
1 Shafqat Mahmood @Shafqat_Mahmood PTI 60,259 66
2 Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad @ShkhRasheed AML 97,346 67
3 Shehbaz Sharif @CMShehbaz PML-N 119,336 70
4 Sharmila Faruqi @sharmilafaruqi PPP 51,990 66
5 Rehman Malik @SenRehmanMalik PPP 91,660 82
6 Pervez Musharraf @PMPakistan APML 51,317 53
7 Mushahid Hussain @Mushahid PML-Q 53,462 75
8 Maryam Nawaz Sharif @MaryamNSharif PML-N 94,317 66
9 Jahangir Tareen @JahangirKTareen PTI 88,340 65
10 Imran Khan @ImranKhanPTI PTI 628,887 78
11 Bilawal Bhutto Zardari @BBhuttoZardari PPP 51,575 61
12 Bakhtawar Bhutto Zardari @BakhtawarBZ PPP 73,967 69
13 Aseefa Bhutto Zardari @AseefaBZ PPP 61,853 66
14 Dr Arif Alvi @ArifAlvi PTI 64,166 69
15 Ahsan Iqbal @betterpakistan PML-N 46,127 65
Source: Twitter.com, Klout.com as of May 24 2013 Note: Klout score is a measure of social influence based on followers and user engagement.

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Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, June 2nd, 2013.