Taking Social Media By Storm


By Malik Siraj Akbar

The American adage “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” is equally applicable to Balochistan. No matter how many bullet-riddled dead bodies of missing persons are recovered in a single week or how many liberal professors are systematically assassinated, the news from Balochistan barely makes front page headlines in the mainstream national media.

Journalist Declan Walsh rightly remarked in a recent article in the Guardian that people living elsewhere in Pakistan know as little about Balochistan as those living overseas.

A lot of media outlets are compelled to opt for a blackout of news from the conflict-stricken province because of pressure from the “higher authorities” who cite the “sensitivity” of the conflict vis-à-vis the national security paradigm as a serious concern. In a recent BBC report, many editors admitted not giving sufficient coverage to Balochistan because of reasons beyond their control.

Ironically, the Baloch no longer complain about this lack of representation in the national media. They don’t even insist on more coverage of their grievances in the news channels and papers. Yet, the secessionist movement is gaining momentum. A conflict which was confined to only two tehsils only four years ago – when former governor Nawab Akbar Bugti was killed – has today spread across the length and breadth of the province. It seems Balochistan refuses to become another Bangladesh in terms of keeping the rest of the country in oblivion about the developments taking place there.

So what is really happening inside the mysterious and unexplored province?

While Balochistan has the lowest social indicators in the country, it has surprisingly become home to the most successful use of social media as a tool for advocating social and political aims. Perhaps nowhere else in South Asia is social media used as effectively as in Balochistan to garner support for the nationalist movement and expose atrocities.

When General Musharraf liberalised broadcast media in the country at the inception of the last decade, he was indeed mindful of the tensions brewing in Balochistan. Thus, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), which is responsible for internet monitoring in the country, was alerted about a possible “misuse” of the internet by the Baloch nationalists. So, hundreds of Baloch websites were blocked by the PTA. Only proxies such as Vtunnel, could help in opening the banned sites which published nationalistic contents.

At that time, Facebook and Twitter were not so popular. So, the government temporarily heaved a sigh of relief, considering the ban on these sites an adequate means to crush the ongoing technological rebellion.

With the spread of the internet in every district of Balochistan and the popularity of social media (which was further facilitated by cell phones), the dynamics of the Baloch nationalist movement experienced an unprecedented change. Today, social networks play a greater role in Balochistan in galvanising support for the movement, as compared to the political parties.

Young Baloch political workers have formed scores of Facebook groups and pages on which they share pictures of the missing Baloch persons. Now, it barely takes one hour for the photos of the “killed and dumped” activists to be uploaded for a global audience on Facebook. Newspapers, on the other hand, still debate or refuse to publish pictures of slain activists buried with the flag of Independent Balochistan because they fear being reprimanded by the government authorities despite knowing that hundreds and thousands of people view these photos on Facebook within an hour of their reaching cyberspace.

Baloch activism on Facebook is increasing day by day. Educated, young college students spread videos and text showcasing developments in Balochistan by simultaneously “sharing” them with multiple groups and pages online. These students say they find “tagging” on Facebook the best way to “compel” people to view their pictures, videos, notes and announcements for scheduled political gatherings and protest rallies.

The Baloch Students Organisation, the Baloch Liberation Army and many other outfits use Youtube as the best source of sharing their message through amateur videos. These videos capture almost all angles of the separatist movement. For example, some videos are made at the Baloch training camps and the others are filmed soon after the recovery of the dead bodies of a missing person. Once the friends and families of the victims of torture see these videos, support for the nationalist movement skyrockets.

A few months ago, the Frontier Corps (FC) raided a plethora of video shops and confiscated CDs featuring radical music and songs. A couple of Balochi language poets, singers and video shop owners were punished for promoting anti-state material. Since then, the Baloch armed groups have started to post videos of their operations on Youtube. The BLA recently posted a six-part video on Youtube stating its objectives and footage of its operations while blowing up gas pipelines and attacking the convoys of security forces.

“Youtube is the best way to share videos with the people,” a young student once told me in Quetta. “These videos have helped us in exposing the government’s atrocities in spite of television channels’ refusal to show such images,” the student added.

Teenage Baloch activists love Youtube because it allows them to download videos featuring the speeches of nationalist demagogues and the funerals of the “martyrs” of the movement. In case someone does not have a particular video, these young men exchange files via Bluetooth. Sharing nationalistic digital contents has almost become the most popular hobby among the young Baloch.

Twitter is another platform where, soon after logging in, one would take only a few minutes to start noticing the stream of Baloch activism. Using screen names such as “freedom fighter” or “Azad Balochistan” these activists, who mainly come from middle-class educated Baloch families, instantly tweet everything that happens inside Balochistan. Most of these tweets have two themes: 1) updated information about human rights issues and the military operation in Balochistan and 2) the constant tagging of top international journalists and human rights activists to invite international attention to the situation in Balochistan.

After an official ban on a number of websites, the nationalists began to actively use blogs hosted on WordPress and Blogspot to share lists of the missing persons, details of the military operation, and announcements concerning anti-government rallies.

Baloch online activism serves as the harbinger of more uncontrollable trouble for Islamabad in Balochistan. Recent developments in the Middle East show that firm political and military control over a country does not necessarily guarantee the stability of a government if and when social media begins favouring the folks on the other side of fence.

In the current situation, Baloch Facebookers and Tweeters have an advantage over the government: Curbing the exponentially increasing power of social media is tantamount to inviting more trouble, criticism, and international attention about the domestic mess. Interior Minister Rehman Malik now has every reason to hold “foreign elements,” including Mark Zuckerberg and his network of geeks responsible for inciting a social media revolution in Balochistan! (Courtesy: The News International)

The writer is a Hubert Humphrey Fellow and a visiting journalist at a Washington DC-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), a project by the Center for Public Integrity. Email: maliksirajakbar@gmail.com

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