Gagged at Home, Pakistanis Take to Cyberspace

WASHINGTON - 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 United States, 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, according to official statistics, and fewer than half the country's 160 million people can read and write. Only 12 million -- or 7.5 percent -- use 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.

Indeed, 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, according to online accounts.

Students at public and private colleges are gearing up for a "black day" of protest 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 outside campuses and mosques 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. We have allowed him to convince us that his presence is necessary to end corruption, to bring stability and to fight terror."

Now, it adds: "The members of this group believe that no excuse is strong enough to deny the will of 150 [sic] million people."

In Internet postings and through e-mail, students and other cyber-activists voice unity in their opposition to the current military government but when it comes to alternatives, they span the ideological and political party spectrum. By no means have they thrown their lot in with any specific civilian seeking to govern.

An army of bloggers, or online diarists, also has risen to provide a steady flow of planning updates, personal testimonies, photographs, and streaming video chronicling the ongoing clampdown and the civil disobedience it has spawned. Bloggers at Emergency Times and other sites operate in defiance of government curbs on coverage of anti-government protests and militancy.

News sites also have sprung up to offer visitors one-stop destinations from which they can access everything from media coverage to images and documents from official and underground sources. Prominent among these is

The site also invites visitors to vote on "which part of the society will bring down Musharraf's draconian rule." As of late Monday, more than 2,000 visitors had said they thought it most likely he would be toppled by "Lawyers, Students, Activists, Others". An inside job -- military insurrection -- came in second-most likely: 449 visitors selected "Army", compared to "123" for "Political Parties" and 89 for "Extremists".

Not that Pakistani media have held their tongues. Ordered off the air or slapped with restrictions by the government and facing personal threats to owners or senior managers, the country's robust independent publishing and broadcasting industry perseveres -- as it did under Pakistan's previous martial ruler, Gen. Zia ul-Haq.

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.

(c) 2007 Inter Press Service

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