Pakistanis take to cyberspace

Pakistanis officially gagged by emergency rule are voicing grievances and mobilising resistance in a place beyond their military rulers’ writ: cyberspace. Lawyers — the vanguard of the uprising — have been rounded up and detained in the thousands, as have opposition politicians and party workers. Politicised students, however, have taken the fight to Web sites like Facebook, normally associated with such trifles as playful snapshots of participants and their pals.

Students Protest for a Free Pakistan, Students Abroad Protesting Martial Law in Pakistan, and other groups are using the social networking site to organise protests against the regime of Pervez Musharraf, the president and army chief, on campuses inside the country and in the US, Canada, and Europe.

The keystroke revolt has limited reach in an overwhelmingly poor and mostly rural country. Two-thirds of Pakistanis live in the countryside and fewer than half the country’s 160 million people can read and write. Only 12 millionuse the Internet. Fewer still are students and not all of these are politically active. Even among the politicised, no one has yet claimed that opponents of military rule enjoy a monopoly.

Even so, the click-and-protest crowd may yet prove worrisome to the government precisely because it is a mostly urban, high-caste mob. International organisations describe Pakistan’s as one of the world’s most unequal societies. In such a setting, the children of privilege and those in a position to aspire to it are not to be dismissed lightly. Protesters rallying round the Internet include some of the country’s business and technocratic leaders-in-waiting.

Online organising led to simultaneous demonstrations Nov. 7 by students and faculty at elite campuses in the national capital, Islamabad, and in Lahore, capital of the dominant province

of Punjab. Schools taking part in the protests included the Lahore University of Management Sciences, University of Punjab, and Quaid-i-Azam University. More than 1,000 students and teachers withstood baton charges and teargas attacks at the Lahore management school alone.

Students at public and private colleges are gearing up for a “black day” of protest on Wednesday, when they plan to unfurl black banners and wear black armbands or headgear in silent protest against the suspension of basic constitutional rights and protections. Protests also are planned for Friday. Some students say they underwent a conversion on the road to online resistance.

“For long, we have condoned the dictatorship in Pakistan,” one group, Students for the Restoration of Democracy in Pakistan, says on its Facebook page. “We have allowed the dictator to mock our constitution, bypass our elected representatives and destroy our institutions.”

Leading satellite and cable-TV channels Aaj and Geo, whose political reporters and talk-show hosts have earned top billing among viewers for taking on subjects and guests without fear or favour, have figured out ways to smuggle their programmes to Dubai, whence they are posted on the Internet and transmitted around the world and back to Pakistan via satellite. In turn, sales of satellite dishes in Pakistan reportedly have surged and government efforts to slam a lid on the market in receivers appear to have met with little success. — IPS