They came for Facebook, YouTube…then me?

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First they came for Facebook, but the social media giant compromised its principles to provide Pakistanis a limited experience of the social network, entering a secret agreement with our government to block access to certain pages in the country.

Then they came for YouTube on religious grounds, and our largely illiterate population applauded the move to limit their access to information and freedom to speak out on an alternate medium outside the control of the state and local media. Google, for reasons of their own, has largely ignored the issue, and we have heaped scorn and hate on the company.

We have had many sections of the web being blocked recently, ranging from websites that monitored and recorded targeted attacks on Shias to the website of evolutionary biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins. We have had pro-Ahmadi websites and Facebook pages such as Roshni disappear. We have seen the continuation of a massive crackdown on Baloch websites. We have recently seen torrent sites being blocked en masse by some internet service providers (ISPs). We have had individual content targeted for bans such as the Beygairat Brigade’s music video Aalu Anday, a satirical rock song that challenged the dominant narrative of the state and our society.

It seems anything that potentially threatens the status quo is fair game for being blocked and banned, which is in direct violation of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But who cares about human rights in this country of ours.

Our Minister of State for Information Technology Anusha Rehman has proudly declared that 2,700 ‘objectionable’ websites have been blocked in Pakistan, and if she has her way, ‘objectionable content’ on the entire internet will be banned.

Sadly, our ISPs, rather than fighting for their customers’ rights, have opted to toe the line, allowing these bans based on directives issued by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) without questioning the grounds for a website being blocked.

There is no announcement to customers when a new site gets blocked. No apology. No explanation. No public list. No notice to the website owner. Only the dreaded one liner:

site blocked in pakistan

The ISPs say they are not responsible as they are only following instructions from above – but they are responsible.

The PTA says it is not responsible as it is similarly only following instructions – they too are directly responsible.

Who is actually issuing the instructions? What are they blocking (and what are they choosing not to block)?

No one knows, as there is no transparency and no legislation governing this process. So really, no one is to blame yet everyone is involved – how convenient.

The anonymous powers issuing instructions, the PTA and the ISPs know they can get away with all this because our nation is a tried and tested bunch of human cockroaches – ready to murder and lynch at the drop of a hat, yet completely ignorant and hollow at their core. We are hypocrites, which makes us easy to manipulate and squish. They know there will never be a revolution in Pakistan, much less a successful campaign against online censorship because none of us really stand united, or is seriously committed to any one set of values.

As I have written before, the values on which the internet has been created (ease of access, empowerment of the individual and such) are in direct conflict with our radicalised, reactionary and uneducated nation.

Who can we appeal to when all the pillars that regulate and govern our society are just as rotten as its people, and in this case, completely ignorant about the nature of the online space?

I fear for my little blog on WordPress. I fear for the news website I run. I fear for the Facebook pages I operate. You should too. They will get here eventually. How do I know?

The report The Express Tribune ran on Beygairat Brigade being banned, is blocked on multiple ISPs in Pakistan.

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Pakistan news groups on social media: July 2013 report

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On Twitter, @etribune maintains a clear lead:
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Wow Geo News Urdu and Samaa TV seem to be clear winners on Facebook — if we’re only measuring by number of likes that is.

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Turns out, Tribune is coming in right next to Geo News Urdu in terms of total number of people ‘talking about this’ i.e. those who actually engage with a brand and its content (the actual standard for success).2

In terms of total number of people ‘talking about this’ divided by the number of likes, its Dunya TV up top, followed by Tribune!

Express News (in yellow) is doing pretty okay too, at third.3

Hate-Speech and Social Media in Pakistan

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Pakistani media is an agent of CIA and RAWShariat ya Shahadat (Shariah or Martydom), Maslak-e-Deoband (Cult of Deoband) and Shias are unbelievers. This is not a list of slogans chanted by extremists on the streets of Pakistan. It is a very small sampling of the thousands of hate-fueled extremist Facebook pages that make up the Pakistani online experience today.

It is a matter of grave concern that for a country that is extremely sensitive to controversial material, the 8.5 million Facebook users from inside Pakistan, have access to messages from local extremists banned organizations and militants with complete impunity. More worryingly, it seems the hate speech against minorities such as the Shia and Ahmadiyya communities is resonating with a majority of local users, along with demands for jihad and making Pakistan an Islamic caliphate.

Do you know which locally run Facebook page has the highest engagement levels – the ‘talking about this’ metric – with Pakistan audiences? Most would assume it is OLX Pakistan, which social media analytics site Social Bakers lists as the number one Facebook page in Pakistan, but that is simply not true. Sorry OLX, your massive ad spend on local media, social media and your marketing teams may have you at 1,965,047 likes and 110,722 users talking about your page as of July 18, but My Ideology is Islam & My Identity is Pakistan (MIMIP) stands at 581,990 likes and a whopping 491,154 talking about the page.

Why is MIMIP almost five times more engaging than the biggest Facebook page in Pakistan? It’s simple really. The page averages about one share every two minutes, up to 10 hours a day. What do these shares consist of? The latest statements by Jamaat-ud-Dawah chief (formerly Lashkar-e-Taiba) Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, generic religious messages, anti-Ahmadi hate speech, health tips, the faces of Pakistani TV anchorspoliticians and senior members of the judiciary Photoshopped with dogs, demons or Hindu/Jewish symbols, anti-Hindu, anti-India hate speech, anti-Semitism, racist, homophobic content, calls for jihad and news updates.

Given the high volume of content MIMIP has to churn out, its social media team tends to steal content from like-minded pages; mostly from the hundreds of pages a little further down the extremist rabbit hole, similar to the ones mentioned at the start of this article.

Let’s ignore the question of who is running this page and to what end right now. Let’s instead focus on the fact that such a monstrosity is allowed to exist and thrive on a social network that has no office or representatives in Pakistan, while the government ignores it. Let’s focus on the fact that reporting much of the hate-speech, slanderous content and even calls to violence and genocide of minorities generated on such pages is futile because the text on the shares is in Urdu or other regional languages.

This is not all we should be focusing on. In the YouTube ban case hearing in the Lahore High Court on July 4, 2013, a representative of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) claimed that Pakistan has an existing “arrangement” with Facebook that allows the government to have “undesirable” content and Facebook pages blocked.

The question arises – if the above Facebook pages are active, what is the government having blocked? Blasphemous content? Determined by whom? The most high-profile case of a local Facebook page being blocked by the PTA recently has been that of Roshni – a page promoting progressive, secular, liberal ideas and sharing messages in support of Malala, Ahmadis, the Shia community, the local Hindu community and anti-blasphemy laws. The page was also blocked for Pakistanis by Facebook and according to an online interview with the founder of Roshni, “They [Facebook] never cared to explain why they did this – maybe they received a lot of complaints and banned on number count.”

Roshni is back on Facebook as a new page, but it’s feared that it is only a matter of time before it will be taken off again. Given this near-hopeless state of affairs, we can all just sit back and relax, subjected to such a foul and destructive narrative, while the government remains aloof at best and complicit at worst. How can citizens fight back when the powers that be have Facebook on their side in an apparent deal that is as devious as it is against the social networking giant’s lofty ‘principles’.

Best to just sip on some mango juice (as long as it’s not Shezan – because that would be pro-Ahmadi) and ‘like’ the Umar Media Facebook page run by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. It makes staying up-to-date with the latest beheading videos so much easier.

Published by the Jinnah Institute.

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.

What will Pakistan ban next?

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Censorship, when undertaken in the name of vague, ill-defined and subjective concepts such as ‘national interest’ or religion and morality, is a slippery slope with disastrous consequences – and this is exactly where Pakistan is headed in the online space.

YouTube has been banned for over nine months now for ‘hosting blasphemous content’ – an assertion that is as true as the response is childish and dangerous. What will be next? Will an irate UK citizen be able to initiate a blanket ban of thousands of websites in Pakistan by appealing to our courts? It appears so, and why not? If a hacker dubiously named Zombie_Ksa can convince the courts and the PTA to do the same in 2012 over the availability of pornographic material on the internet, a ban framed in the context of religion should be much easier.

How about a ban of all ‘dissident’ Baloch websites in the name of ‘national interest’? Given that we have seen even fairly balanced news websites like the Baloch Hal and many others blocked over the last few years, it can only be expected that such censorship will continue to expand, legitimized through directives and legislation like the Pakistan Telecommunications (Re-organisation) Act, 1996 that criminalises vague offenses such as the ill-defined “false” or fabricated” content, or “mischief.”

Forget about the legalities of actually defining such words or how a site could be impacting ‘national interest’ or the process by which site owners can appeal a ban. None of these are needed if the issue is tied to the narrative of a Pakistan at war on all fronts. The public will be more than willing, and very forgiving of being denied access to information – after all, who ever needed information that runs contrary to one’s strongly held views?

With internet penetration in the country finally reaching the public-at-large and not just early adopters, the values on which the internet has been created – collaboration, free(dom), universal access, empowerment of the individual among others – are going to run into direct conflict with radical Pakistan. Extremism is rampant in our society, and dogma — whether religious or nationalist in nature — is being used by powerful lobbies to curtail the rights of ordinary citizens, without their actual assent, but definitely with their blessings.

These powerful lobbies include members of extremist groups, our establishment and the government, all of whom have a stake in seeing sections of the internet banned in order to maintain their power and the status quo. To them, the internet is a very real threat that not only exposes their wrongdoings but also allows alternative narratives to flourish out of their control, not to mention provides citizens a meeting ground to exchange ideas, organize and take action – all very dangerous things.

If Pakistan had a strong civil society, or an educated populace that was aware of their rights, online censorship of the kind we are witness to would be impossible. Unfortunately, what we have are swathes of illiterate people, a radicalized youth and middle class versus a small number of upper-middle class and elite who are torn between fighting for their rights, and maintaining the status quo that is feeding their elevated positions; in other words, hypocrites.

In such an environment, the only question to ask is what will Pakistan ban next?

It would be safe to predict that in the near future, anytime an individual or group wishes to gain temporary relevance or score points with the conservative right-wing majority, a ban of online content will be brought to the fore. At first it will be foreign sites that will be blocked off, and one glance through Vimeo, Daily Motion, Twitter, Yahoo or Bing will show that blasphemous content is very easy to find, because easy access to information is one of the values governing the internet. The establishment and government will similarly impose bans with impunity in the name of ‘national interest’ or to block ‘anti-state’ material. All this will continue without any real accountability as there are no cyber laws to address internet censorship.

As time passes, alarm bells will start ringing for more and more citizens as the censorship will inevitably turn on local websites and networks, but by then it will be too late. Ahmadis being one of the most marginalized groups in the country have already seen such online censorship this year, and will likely see more, followed by other religious minorities including Shias, sects, and finally, political groups and businesses out to take each other down.

Services such as WhatsApp and Skype will also be banned, superficially in the name of ‘national interest’ to prevent terrorists misusing them, or the more flimsy excuse: because they promote immoral communication between young people. At this stage, even the most logic-defying reasons for censorship cannot be ruled out, keeping in mind that nearby Saudi Arabia has banned Viber and plans to block WhatsApp within weeks. With examples like Saudi Arabia and China on hand, online censorship will not only be expected from the government, a lack of it could very easily lead to civil unrest, manufactured by the earlier mentioned powerful lobbies of course.

What will be the consequence of this string of online bans that will take place, foreseeably over the next two to five years?

Such attempts would of course be trampling over citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and access to information in direct violation of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But to compound matters, such actions would mean that all the advantages the internet has to offer in terms of communication, collaboration, organization, education, technological innovation (not to mention monetization and entertainment) will be greatly diminished or lost entirely.

What this will cost us economically and in terms of development will become obvious and more pronounced as we look at other developing nations with a progressive viewpoint of the web. The years will pass with Pakistan holding itself hostage on the online front and as always, the nation will ask in utter confusion: why are we standing still while the world progresses forward?

Published by the Jinnah Institute.