KARACHI, Pakistan – Today, images of Pakistanis rejoicing at the reinstatement of deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry abound. But some of the greatest energy surrounding the Pakistani lawyers’ movement, and their cross-country protest march that began last Thursday, cannot be found on the streets of Islamabad or Lahore – it’s online.
For the past several days, student activists, citizen journalists, and Pakistanis across the diaspora who could not march with the lawyers have been typing or texting instead.
Pakistan, a developing nation with about 17 million Internet users in a population of more than 150 million, seems like an unlikely place for Internet activism to thrive. But ongoing political turmoil, the looming threat of suicide attacks, and government directives to arrest participants in the lawyers’ movement prompted many Pakistanis take their political activism to blogs, chat forums, and Twitter. (Read the Monitor’s coverage of the cross-country protest march here, here, and here.)
“Movement was blocked and political activists were being arrested, so we took our fight online,” says Abeer Hamid, a recent graduate of Lahore’s National University and a member of the Students Action Committee, an independent activist group. Mr. Hamid maintains SAC’s Facebook group, through which students have organized their participation in the Long March. “I wanted to raise awareness amongst young people who are all on the Internet – I wanted them to know they could help without leaving their homes."
Before the Long March kicked off, Hamid and other Lahore-based student activists created and posted an “official” anthem – based on a poem by a leader of the lawyers’ movement, Aitzaz Ahsan – to the video-sharing website, YouTube, which was widely distributed via online mailing lists.
Throughout the weekend, as marchers across the country convened in Lahore, a Long March Twitter feed provided net-connected Pakistanis with bite-sized updates from rallies as well as breaking news from the television channels. On Monday morning, a ‘tweet’ first alerted Islamabad’s residents that ice cream was being distributed at the chief justice’s residence.
Meanwhile, an online initiative called “See‘n’ Report: Long March for Justice” brought together live, nationwide updates via SMS text message, short blog posts, and images from the route. For their part, popular Pakistani bloggers – including the Karachi-based Teeth Maestro and March for Justice – offered readers live updates along with political commentary.
“When I saw something happening in Lahore, I posted it online so that people around the world could know the truth about what was happening,” explains Ahmed Saleemi, a Lahore School of Economics student who participated in Sunday’s rally at the Lahore High Court and contributed to the See‘n’ Report. “When television channels go off, someone has to keep a record.”
Internet activism took off in Pakistan on Nov. 3, 2007, when then-President Pervez Musharraf imposed a state of emergency and simultaneously blocked all private television channels. At the time, citizen journalists, lawyers, and political activists came together to ensure that the actions of Musharraf’s regime were documented online.
Long March anthem: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IiwPotaS_4s
Teeth Maestro: http://teeth.com.pk/blog/
March for Justice: http://marchforjustice.wordpress.com/