«

»

A new report empowers the struggle for freedoms in Pakistan and across the world

By Simon Davies

Any thinking person who takes an interest in the affairs of Pakistan is inevitably struck both by a deep sadness and by unexpected anger.

Countless people in this little-understood nation of 190 million citizens struggle daily to reconcile tensions between the increasingly persuasive voice for legal and political reform and an entrenched intolerance by some authorities to internationally recognised rights and freedoms. And yet this noble activity is rarely reflected in global public opinion.

Such tensions are of course not unique to Pakistan; they boil across the world. The sadness for Pakistan lays not just in the cruel global public view of this nation, but also Pakistan’s own negative perception of its place in the world.

There is a popular view in the West that Pakistan as a nation is dominated by extremism and intolerance. This stereotype is as ill informed and unfair as it would be for any people struggling to achieve a resolution of their beliefs.

There is a popular view in the West that Pakistan as a nation is dominated by extremism and intolerance. This stereotype is as ill informed and unfair as it would be for any people struggling to achieve a resolution of their beliefs. In reality Pakistan is a nation that is deeply rooted in multiple aspects of Islamic belief but which is also bound by adherence to a remarkably advanced national constitution. This is a complex challenge to resolve – far more so than with the largely theoretical divisions in Western Christian ideology which is tempered in many countries by the separation of Church and State.

Contrary to Western views there is some evidence that public opinion in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world  is becoming more moderate. The Muslim world’s view of the US continues however to be generally negative.

The West’s largely negative public view of Pakistan is a travesty. Global opinion of Tunisia and Libya radically improved in late 2010 with the advent of the Arab Spring but the world seems to have overlooked the fact that Pakistan led the Arab Spring by more than two years.

In 2008 and 2009 for example many thousands of people rallied in the “Long March” on Islamabad to protest against the sacking by President Pervez Musharraf of 45 judges. The protest was successful, and resulted in the restoration of the sacked judges.

And yet, this brave and remarkable challenge to authority is rarely recorded in the narrative of the Arab Spring. The Wikipedia article on the subject for example contains no reference to Pakistan’s pioneering role in the Arab Spring.

There is a credible view that Pakistan’s defiance of tyrannical authority failed to inspire the West because of three distinct reasons. First, it didn’t conform to the David and Goliath template which requires the imminent devastation of a government. Second, there is an entrenched antipathy to Pakistan that limited the spread of “campaigning” journalism. Finally, and perhaps most important, the connection with online Social Media was not made, and the story was therefore less “cool” than it was with the Arab Spring.

the world seems to have overlooked the fact that Pakistan led the Arab Spring by more than two years.

The Long March and other actions clearly establish that Pakistan cannot be entirely written off as a nation dominated by hopeless tyranny. The reality however is that at the moment the country is gripped by a wave of institutional intolerance of free speech. Multiple attempts have been made by government authorities – notably the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA)  – to ban online social networking sites.

Those who oppose the status quo are at risk. Indeed Pakistan has one of the highest murder rates for journalists of any country. Surveillance, kidnap and harassment are daily threats for journalists and bloggers. They risk physical surveillance, computer hacking, threats to family and friends, the possibility of losing their jobs and being exiled.

Unfortunately, such repression is conducted not only by radical elements in society, but in some cases by the government itself. Amid Pakistan’s deteriorating environment for freedom of speech and expression, not only traditional journalists but also bloggers confront censorship of their writings and threats to their personal safety.

Given the dangers that many journalists risk in using a wide range of online services and digital tools, this vulnerable population urgently needs to understand the importance of security.

An important new report published by the Internews Center for Innovation & Learning and the Pakistan-based ICT and human rights organization Bytes for All (B4A) provides some important insights not just into the nature of these threats but also the technological means to help counteract them. The report provides crucial lessons not just for Pakistan, but for all nations where privacy and freedom of expression are threatened.

The organisations conducted research to provide a snapshot of the awareness and practice of digital security strategies by the media community in Pakistan. The results came as a surprise.

B4A interviewed journalists and bloggers from across the country. Three-quarters of those surveyed had personally experienced a security issue due to their work. However, most of the respondents were unaware of the security risks they face in their online activities, such as email interception and data theft. Nor were respondents aware of the widely available strategies and tools that could protect them in the digital space, including using secure email services, encrypting their data or making use of IP blocking services that help hide sensitive online activities.

The lack of awareness of online security threats is a significant concern, particularly in view of evidence that such violations are steeply increasing globally.

The report strongly highlighted the need for proper training for journalists and bloggers, both to educate them about where they are most vulnerable, and to introduce them to the range of available online security tools. Given the dangers that many journalists risk in using a wide range of online services and digital tools, including email, blogs, micro-blogging and browsers, this vulnerable population urgently needs to understand the importance of security.