FIGHTING CENSORSHIP

In Pakistan, a youth-led, social media-powered movement is gaining ground – despite a media blackout

The Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement was born out of protests in support of Naqeebullah Mehsud – who was labelled a terrorist and killed by the police.

The revolution will not be televised in Pakistan. Unless it has the blessings of the powers-that-be. This has been proved time and again in the past, under a system ruled directly by the military for more than half the country’s 71-year history. The current censorship may be the worst-ever.

There is a near total blackout in Pakistan’s mainstream media of the ongoing social media-powered, youth-led movement that has sprung up in protest against the murder in January of a young man by the Karachi Police. They alleged that he was a terrorist.

Naqeebullah Mehsud, 27, was, in fact, an aspiring model. His father knew he was destined for fame – but not like this.

Ten years ago, conflict had forced the family to flee their ancestral village in the north-west tribal belt bordering Afghanistan. They had moved in with relatives in another town in the same region, the semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas or Fata.

Since 2004, military operations against militants in the north-west have led to 1.5 million becoming internally displaced. The most affected tribal agencies (districts) are Fata’s North Waziristan and South Waziristan.

Mehsud, a father of three minor children, had travelled to Karachi, taking up factory jobs. But his real passion was music, dance and fashion. At the time of his death, his Facebook page had over 4,000 followers.

On January 3, the Karachi Police had picked him up along with other Mehsud tribesmen. News of his death on January 16 in an “encounter” aroused widespread outrage. Social media had erupted with the hashtag #JusticeForNaqeeb.

Security forces have killed over 3,000 suspected militants since 2015, according to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan that has been demanding accountability and an end to these killings.

Social media ensured that Mehsud was not just another statistic. His murder also catalysed on-ground protests that continue. The last rally, on April 29 in Swat, drew an estimated 25,000 demonstrators.

The long march for justice

After Mehsud’s funeral on January 19 in his native village, attended by scores of tribesmen, activist Manzoor Pashteen, 26, from South Waziristan, announced a protest march to Islamabad. Pashteen, who works as a veterinarian, has actively campaigned against racial profiling and injustices. Initially just 30-strong, the procession grew in size as it headed to the capital. By the time it reached Islamabad, it numbered several thousand.

By the end of a 10-day-long sit-in in front of the National Press Club in Islamabad from February 1 to February 10, this Mehsud Tahaffuz Movement had developed into the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement or Pashtun Protection Movement. Their next sit-in, in Peshawar, drew a 60,000-strong crowd.

Their demand for constitutional rights directly challenging Pakistan’s powerful security establishment was blatantly censored from the mainstream media. The pattern has continued with subsequent rallies.

In contrast, former cricket hero-turned politician Imran Khan, widely seen as an establishment favourite, got five hours of advertisement-free coverage for his Lahore demonstration on the same day as the movement’s Swat rally. Journalists underscored this point on social media.

But in this digital age, news of the Swat demonstration could not be suppressed. The social media activists or citizen journalists who trended the hashtag #PashtunLongMarch2Swat included gender studies lecturer Tooba Syed from Islamabad. Making the four-hour journey to Swat by road, she movingly documented her experiences on Twitter.

Without social media, “the movement would not be possible”, said one of its leaders, 34-year-old lawyer Mohsin Dawar, a former student activist associated with Left politics.

The rapid rise of social media in Pakistan (17% internet penetration, growing fast) and mobile phone subscribers (over 70%) makes television coverage (73%) less crucial than before. But censorship still violates the people’s right to know, as a statement endorsed by over 100 journalists in April emphasises.

The statement protests the banning of various television channels. It says editors are “dropping regular op-ed columns and removing online editions of published articles. One media house even asked its anchors to stop live shows.”

Media censorship

The case of the small but fast growing digital platform Naya Daur (New Age) illustrates the lack of tolerance for any narrative other than the official one, and the frustrating obfuscation of who is behind the censorship.

On April 16, Naya Daur posted analyst Gul Bukhara’s comment “I Am Pashteen”, written for her weekly column that was dropped by the daily The Nation. Naya Daur’s website, which also posted other Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement-related material, was blocked in Pakistan from April 21 to April 28. Editor Raza Rumi says he was given no notice.

The Pakistan Telecom Authority denied having ordered the blockade. The country’s largest internet provider, the semi-private Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited, denied blocking it. Behind-the-scenes lobbying with the security establishment also drew a blank. But the website remains unavailable to subscribers of the service provider Wateen, as well as Chinese provider Zong.

Social media takes on greater significance given how blatantly newspapers and television channels are being censored.

Crackdown on college campuses

College campuses are also under pressure. Nearly 300 academics from Pakistan and abroad, including linguist Noam Chomsky, have signed an open letter against increased repression at public and private universities in Pakistan. It lists four “separate but related instances of repression” at campuses in various cities on April 12 and April 13 – “part of a wider trend that stifles critical thinking and discussion on university campuses”.

One instance was the forced cancellation of a discussion on “new social movements” at Pakistan’s first liberal arts university in Karachi. The second was the cancellation at a private college in Lahore of a commemoration of Mashal Khan, a progressive student lynched on a private university campus in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The third was the sacking of progressive academic Dr Ammar Ali Jan from the public Punjab University. The fourth involved “state functionaries” visiting Pashteen’s alma mater, Gomal University, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and warning faculty “to not teach subjects that would encourage critical thinking amongst the students”.

Simultaneously, an organised campaign on social media and on television talk shows is vilifying Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement activists as “traitors” and “foreign agents” – a familiar tool against anyone who goes against the security establishment’s narrative.

So threatened are “the good guys”, as Mohsin Dawar calls the invisible hands, that they have formed organisations to counter the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, with nationalistic names like “Pakistan Zindabad” and “Pakistan Tahaffuz Movement”.

Arrests, detentions

Attempts to derail the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement’s demonstration in Lahore on April 22 included police picking up activists and confiscating rally literature from a printing press the previous night. In Karachi, 1,000 km south, the police detained activists protesting the Lahore arrests. The activists were released a few hours later, following a massive outcry on social media.

“If the religious fanatics are allowed to block the roads for weeks in the main capital city Islamabad and no legal action taken against them, why are the Left and PTM not allowed a public meeting at a ground where no traffic is blocked?” asked Farooq Tariq, convener of the Lahore Left Front that hosted the event.

He was referring to the 20-day Faizabad sit-in in November by a Right-Wing group being politically mainstreamed by the establishment. The video of an Army official dishing out cash to the demonstrators as “transport money” had sparked outrage.

Foremost among the “traitors” was the late human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir, who vocally supported the movement. “You are here with pain in your hearts. I am here to share your grief, as your sister,” she said, addressing the movement’s Islamabad sit-in. “This is not a Pashtun issue. It concerns every Pakistani.” She added that without Pashtuns, “Pakistan would be an intolerant nation”.

The Islamabad sit-in, despite the media blackout, boosted the movement. Jahangir’s speech, available online, was her last public appearance – she died of a heart attack three days later.

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The Pashtun question

The pain goes deep. Profiled as “war-like” and militant, Pashtuns have suffered under the Taliban and in military operations. They have lost thousands in attacks by militants and the military; thousands have been kidnapped by militants or disappeared at the hands of the security establishment. They have suffered displacement, and are humiliated at security check posts. Life-threatening active landmines in homes and markets greet those who return.

“PTM stands for rights, accountability and restoring dignity of Pashtuns in the conflict zones,” said Dr Saira B Orakzai, a fellow at Harvard University from the Orakzai tribal agency. “This movement is critical for tribal Pashtuns who have been suffering for the last 71 years”.

She said that Pashtuns and other Pakistanis must continue to address the plight of tribal people, as well as the issue of enforced disappearance, humiliation at check posts and human rights violations in the area.

The Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement wants former Army chief and President General Pervez Musharraf to be tried for high treason for handing over missing persons to the United States for prize money. In the chapter “Manhunt” in his 2006 memoir In the Line of Fire, Musharraf unabashedly confesses: “We have captured 689 [terrorists] and handed over 369 to the United States. We have earned bounties totalling millions of dollars.”

At the core of the expressly peaceful movement’s demands is to be treated as human beings, equal citizens under the Constitution. Governed by obsolete colonial-era laws and “political agents” rather than elected representatives, Fata remains outside the ambit of Pakistan’s Constitution.

One of the movement’s leaders, Ali Wazir from South Waziristan, lost 17 of his family members to militant attacks, including his father, brothers, cousins and an uncle – killed in a single ambush. In prison under the British-era Frontier Crimes Regulation that holds an entire tribe or region responsible for the crimes of an individual, Wazir was not allowed to attend their funerals. He then suffered massive financial losses when the military dynamited his family’s market in an “anti-militant” operation.

If after all this, the activists are calling not for violence but for legal redress, and instead of taking up arms “demanding basic constitutional rights, that should be good enough”, said youth activist Khushal Khan in Islamabad.

Faisal Mahmood / Reuters
Faisal Mahmood / Reuters

White flags and smartphones

Demonstrators holding photographs of missing loved ones flock to the rallies. Pakistan’s judicial Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances is investigating the cases of over 4,000 missing persons, some of whom have been traced.

The large presence of women at the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement’s demonstrations is breaking social taboos against gender segregation. The movement’s catchy signature song Da Sanga Azadi Da (What Kind of Freedom Is This?) plays at the rallies. Supporters wave white flags for peace, and black for mourning. Smartphones are visible everywhere.

Despite the arrests and propaganda, each rally – Islamabad, Peshawar, Lahore, Swat – has drawn huge crowds from across ethnic and religious divides. The movement’s next demonstration is scheduled for May 12 in Karachi – symbolic of the day in 2007 that saw nearly 50 protestors killed in the city, for which Musharraf is held responsible.

So far, despite being ignored in the mainstream media or vilified through social media as traitors, this four-month-old movement shows no sign of disappearing any time soon. Except from Pakistan’s establishment-controlled airwaves.

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