Status Update: New Media, Legislation & Activism in the Digital Age

//CGCS Media Wire provides a look back at 2012’s new and social media law, legislation and activism in Pakistan. CGCS writer Arzak Khan explains.

2012 showed netizens worldwide that new and social media can be used to advance societal ambitions – not just the good, but the bad and the ugly ones as well. Through the events of the Arab Spring in the Middle East, and Pakistan’s now famous Black Movement, new media proved to be an invaluable asset in disrupting years of dictatorial control, embracing democracy and at times restoring the rule of law. Conversely, flipping through the year’s headlines also shows the same tools of the information age being used to promote propaganda, censor and monitor citizens and to engage in information warfare.

Social networks are used by many groups and governments to distort the reality of ongoing conflicts, particularly when concerning human rights violations. Recent years have seen people persecuted for expressing themselves on social networking sites as recently as late November in India. In some of the worst reported cases, whistle-blowing users of new media became victims of brutal violence such as the bloggers in Mexico.

With a year of tight cellular phone regulations, restrictions on media use, shockingly high counts of attacks on citizen journalists (such as young Malala Yousafzai), and recent monitoring and censorship legislation, Pakistan is a hotbed for media reform and restriction.

Counter-Terrorism or Authoritarian Monitoring?vivalarevolution-300x200

In this rapidly changing age of communications, new media (especially social sites like Twitter and Facebook) have raised profound questions about the role of traditional media in reporting and framing events. The recently enlightened powerhouse of citizen journalism has also challenged the ways in which authoritarian regimes are controlling the free flow of information (as seen recently in Syria and Iran), resulting in many countries (both developed and developing alike) introducing some form of legislation to aid in the interception of “terrorist” communications.

In late December, Pakistan introduced the seemingly draconian “Fair Trail Bill 2012” which allows government agencies to intercept private communications such as phone calls, SMS, emails, and social media communications in order to catch “terrorists,” leading many media watchdogs to refer to it as “Pakistan’s Patriot Act”.

Rights groups and scholars alike have expressed concerned over legislation like this, with the possible misuse of the law by state institutions being used to target dissenting human rights activists. This is especially concerning in the volatile Pakistani province of Baluchistan which has seen an alarming rise in deadly violence against human rights activists, lawyers, students and journalists in particular.

Citizen Journalists Fill Gaps in Coverage

The lack of coverage by traditional media on human rights violations in countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and parts of Africa (by both state and non-state entities) has resulted in new media activists utilizing social tools to pick up the editorial slack and counter spin cast by authoritarian news outlets.

Online platforms with high levels of social interaction such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, (as well as the ever-growing blogosphere) can provide access to international news coverage for those interested in sorting through the noise in search of poignant, telling information.

Conversely, controlling governments are catching on and starting to populate (and in some cases replicate), social networks to censor and monitor user activity, and more recently (and perhaps dangerously) to spread their own information and propaganda. Acts of barbarianism, (as seen in this video from Pakistan’s Baluchistan province) were uploaded by terrorists to glorify their causes and actions (user discretion advised when watching the video). Submitted videos are easily accessible to anyone with a Facebook or YouTube account. Some content even celebrates the human rights atrocities still being committed by regimes in the modern age.

Conclusion

For journalists in countries with controversial civil liberties and human rights records (such as Pakistan, labeled 2012’s most dangerous country by the Committee to Protect Journalists), the introduction of new censorship and monitoring legislation adds further danger and difficulty to their job. While it was already dangerous enough just to report on government and military activity in controlled regimes, novice journalists using mobile devices and simple home internet connections for activism purposes are facing brand new challenges.

In a recent statement, the pro-government faction of the Pakistani Taliban (led by Commander Mullah Nazeer) also banned mobile phones with built in digital cameras and memory cards in the Wana subdivision of troubled South Waziristan. The Mullah Commander already has a history of burning hundreds of mobile phones with built in camera and memory card functionality as well.

The use of modern technologies (especially mobile phones and the social web), have rattled governments around the world. I expect to see more legislation legalizing interception and surveillance, and employing the kill switch for digital technologies – not just only to catch terrorists but also keep the populace under check.

Written on board Thai Airways TG492 from Auckland to Bangkok and sent using free Wi-Fi at Bangkok International Airport.

//Arzak Khan is a communication expert who researches on the marketing of Human rights, New Media, and Social Movements in the South. One part of his research focuses on understanding the role played by Information Communication Technologies in Mediatization of society and other focuses on the development of ICT infrastructure, broadband strategies and regulation of the Internet.

Arzak blogs at http://telecologist.blogspot.com/ and can be found on Twitter as well @ArzakKhan

[show_hide title=”Click for more MediaWire Posts from Arzak Khan“]

11/30 Balochistan: Journalists Caught in the “Valley of Death”

11/21 The End of Late Night Mobile Packages

10/29 The Future or Funeral of Mobile Phone Industry in Pakistan

10/17 Media Coverage of Taliban’s Attack on Malala Yousafzai

09/12 Internet Evolution at the Crossroads

08/16 Avalanche of Transnational Media in Pakistan [/show_hide]

 

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