Saving Pakistan, one tweet at a time

Published: July 25, 2012
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The writer is a partner at Bhandari, Naqvi & Riaz and an advocate of the Supreme Court. The writer can be reached on Twitter @laalshah. The views presented in the article above are not those of his firm

The writer is a partner at Bhandari, Naqvi & Riaz and an advocate of the Supreme Court. The writer can be reached on Twitter @laalshah. The views presented in the article above are not those of his firm

Social media needs to be protected because it is the only safe space for intellectual discussion in Pakistan.

Imagine that you are a person of independent thought in Pakistan. Now imagine further that you would like to discuss your thoughts with other people. Where can you go?

In the real world, the short answer is ‘nowhere’. Pakistan does not have permanent public spaces for reasoned conversation. You cannot go somewhere in Lahore or Karachi for the conversation; at best, you can go somewhere for the food.

The sad part is that it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when people interested in ideas had places to go to, the most famous being the Pak Tea House of yore. Lesser intellectuals with more money also had places to go — primarily clubs — where they could meet for a drink or to chat. It was all extremely parochial and elitist. But at least it was something.

The clubs were the first to go, killed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. When he banned alcohol, people moved from the clubs to their homes in order to keep on drinking. The result was that people stopped meeting new people. Instead, with rare exceptions, they met only the ones they already knew.

The universities and the teahouses were the next to go, killed by the aggressively violent self-righteousness of the Zia years. It was no longer safe to be a progressive intellectual in public or to believe in things like rights for workers and women. For a man, the only safe thing to do in public was to grow a beard and hike up your shalwar. For a woman, the only safe thing to do in public was to cover herself and keep quiet.

The only reason why General Ziaul Haq and his successors did not succeed in completely killing intellectual curiosity in Pakistan was due to the efforts of a brave few in the media. When Zia died and a new era emerged, the forces of repression eased enough to allow the emergence of new newspapers and magazines. Herald was joined by Newsline. Dawn was joined by The Nation and the The Frontier Post.

The liberation of the electronic press by General (retd) Pervez Musharraf changed everything. Prior to the advent of cable television, the entire English press in Pakistan probably had a combined readership of less than 100,000. The Urdu press probably accounted for a million people more. Compared with the population of the country, print circulation was nothing. On the other hand, the audience for cable television was in the tens of millions. Suddenly, people were no longer getting their news just from PTV but also from Geo and ARY.

At the same time, the liberation of the electronic press changed very little. All that happened is that the same talking heads that wrote columns in the press started fulminating on talk shows. Yes, the universe of faces expanded because each talk show needed guests. But at the end of the day, the number of people actually involved in public conversation remained very limited. If you weren’t a talk show host or a talk show guest, then your options for expressing or discussing your opinions remained as they were during the Zia years. Which is to say, nil.

It is in this context that the arrival of social media is revolutionary. Go back to the example I started with. The young independent thinker still does not have a physical location where he or she can pose their questions. If s/he gets uppity in class, s/he is likely to be disciplined. If s/he resists being objectified, the local fundos will still threaten. But out in the virtual world, it’s a different story. As a cartoon in The New Yorker once put it, “On the Internet, no one knows you are a dog”.

Pakistan’s sharpest wit at this time is an anonymous individual who delivers one-liners under the name of “majorlyprofound” (recently upgraded to Dr Majorly Profound). If the good major were to present his one-liners before a physical audience, he would probably require medical attention (our sensitivity to criticism being what it is). But behind the shelter provided by the internet, he is free to deliver his barbs.

More importantly, social media not only provides true freedom of speech but it also allows a public space where people with ideas can not only present their ideas to acclaim but also to criticism. In a country like Pakistan where decision-makers live their lives in cocoons of silence and sycophancy, this is incredibly important.

Obviously, social media is no panacea. As is evident from the case of the US, social media can become incredibly polarised and ghettoised so that the online community splinters into little political fragments, each vigorously waging war on others.

Pakistan’s social media has not quite reached that level of fragmentation as yet. At present, there is only one violent tribe in our virtual world, the trolls of the PTI, who maraud the virtual landscape much like the Vandals and the Visigoths. But with the exception of the ‘Insaafians’, the remaining members of the social world are reasonably polite. The result is that people are not just talking to one another in the virtual world, they are getting to know one another as well.

We need to understand this point because social media in Pakistan is still a very self-conscious and awkward institution, a newcomer in a world of ostensible giants. Many people — even people who should know better — think of Facebook and Twitter as time wasting fripperies, on a par with video games and daytime soap operas. That is why periodic efforts to ban either Facebook or Twitter are met normally with a shrug.

To a limited extent, this is true. More people use social media to exchange birthday greetings than to discuss Heidegger. But that is beside the point. Most of the content in most newspapers is equally trivial: what matters is that the trivial content supports and permits a more intellectual superstructure, one that allows the actual exchange and discussion of ideas.

We all hear, day in and day out, about how Pakistan is sinking into a Talibanised abyss of enforced ignorance. If we are to avoid that awful future, it is vital to preserve intellectual freedom. And at this point, there is nothing more essential to that quest than embracing and protecting social media.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 26th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (33)

  • faraz
    Jul 25, 2012 - 11:00PM

    My all-time favorite tweet by Majorly-profound
    One country’s terrorist, another country’s strategic asset :)

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  • Abid Baloch
    Jul 25, 2012 - 11:09PM

    I found it very offending to point out a single political party or entity. Certainly PTI has heavy presence in media due to more educated and youth in the party fold but the shear number shouldn’t intimidate anyone. There are many others who are more bashing but has fewer members on the social media.

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  • Jul 25, 2012 - 11:39PM

    Excellent article! Too late to revive anything. Destruction is smiling at us. Zia ul Haq destroyed this country.

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  • Ejaaz
    Jul 25, 2012 - 11:41PM

    “Imagine that you are a person of independent thought in Pakistan. Now imagine further that you would like to discuss your thoughts with other people. Where can you go? ….. The sad part is that it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when people interested in ideas had places to go to, the most famous being the Pak Tea House of yore. Lesser intellectuals with more money also had places to go — primarily clubs — where they could meet for a drink or to chat.”

    That is not true. We have never had the freedom to think and discuss our thoughts. For example, openly discussing critical ideas on Islam always resulted in getting killed. We never allowed our minorities to express their thoughts at all. What has happened is that the range of topics on which we can talk openly has shrunk over time. The reason for this is largely our accepting the largess of the petro dollars and the accompanying Salafi ideology. We elected to become more like Saudi Arabia and as we have we also acquired the Saudi culture of never openly discussing certain “sensitive” topics. We are now at a point where an overwhelming majority of our young never having been exposed to free and open exchange of critical ideas, do not even appear to have any critical ideas to express.

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  • Parvez
    Jul 25, 2012 - 11:45PM

    Well said. The down side to this is the worrying and frustrating thought that, is this really worth while ? When in a governance system the abuser of the system really gives a flying fiddle for your electronic protesting, no matter how smart it may be because he knows he will never be held accountable. This possibly is negative thinking on my part but its a point that came to mind.

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  • Jul 25, 2012 - 11:56PM

    Sir,
    Protecting social media is indeed direly important as it happens to be the only popular among masses, platform that outreaches the maximum audience but what I feel is, that we should use these sources (i.e social media) to re-make all our lost interaction schools, and revive that spirit of meeting and discussing in-physical to exchange views and ideas.
    Social Media is indeed an asset to Pakistani’s. Subjection to continuous political attacks not only restricted but also expanded this very particular field, as we discovered innovative and intellectual ways to communicate without violation. As far as blaming PTI for not using a polite tone on social media, That’s not fair as we have seen other political parties making use of aggressive language and tone on social media. (I don’t belong to any political party).
    That’s an informative write up.

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  • Amjad
    Jul 26, 2012 - 1:43AM

    At present, there is only one violent tribe in our virtual world, the trolls of the PTI, who maraud the virtual landscape much like the Vandals and the Visigoths. But with the exception of the ‘Insaafians’, the remaining members of the social world are reasonably polite.

    YOU call them TROLLS just because ‘Insafians’ are hard to buy your ideas? just because they are NOT lame enough to accept whatever you come up with? just because they ASK you question and in cases, question your motives?

    And so you proved them right yet again by pointing out ‘insafians’ in your article and let the others off the hook. you didn’t even bother to write a single word about others.

    This tells alot about your motives, with all due respect, and that is the reason you guys are questioned. And who are you to judge someone? i will borrow this from FARAZ => One country’s terrorist, another country’s strategic asset :) ]

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  • Mirza
    Jul 26, 2012 - 1:46AM

    I agree with the author 100%. If it were not the Net and social media I would never be able to participate in the debate. In fact there would have been no debate at all. The biggest hurdle in our progress is fanatic and totalitarian mindset of many people. Their attitude is my way or the highway. Generation after generation we are raised without any healthy debate on most critical issues that the country is facing. I have been called CIA agent, Indian, non Muslim, and everything except a patriotic democratic Pakistani.
    One day in Pakistan I was surrounded by many who were complaining about the lies regarding WMD in Iraq. I asked them a question that if Pakistani army and police would have occupied Iraq how many WMD they would have recovered by now? Many of them went speechless. They had to admit that the US army did not plant any WMD and did not even try to lie about that. The politicians and some in the media are a different case but the army in the US does not lie to its own people or make stories on the official level. I am not saying that they are all angels but there are many people who would not tell lies and the truth would come out like Abu Gharib that came out because of a US soldier. How much truth has come out about atrocities in E. Pakistan or presence of OBL in the army base? This is all lack of open and honest debate.

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  • Logic Europe
    Jul 26, 2012 - 1:47AM

    So somehow you dragg Bhutoo in it
    the sort of People you meet in bars!! intellectuals ??

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  • Hegdefunder
    Jul 26, 2012 - 1:57AM

    A truly well written and highligted article about media in Pakistan.
    But Pakistan lost any sincere reporting and openess during and after loss of East Pakistan, as they went into an mode of denials and concoctions to suit whoever was in charge, furthermore Zia arrival was the final nail in the coffin for freedom of expression, as he decided to move towards his Saudi master’s policy of Wahabism and Madrassa Education for the masses.
    Unfortunately for Pakistan , it does not have OIL, and the world has got use to this Nation’s Begging Bowl for too long, at same time Pakistan has never had any Political Leadership whose principal interests have been for the Nation, but sadly for Party, politics and personal only, hence the state of the Nation.
    Its too late to make amends and even if they tried, it will take not years but decades to undo what is in place today.

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  • kaalchakra
    Jul 26, 2012 - 4:16AM

    The Internet has only one role – it gives the one and a half Pakistanis who call themselves Atheist Islamists and the two who think that Atheist Islamists will lead them to salvation a conviction that the four, put together, have any future in Pakistan.

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  • Imran Con
    Jul 26, 2012 - 4:24AM

    @Abid Baloch:
    An offended and whiny PTI supporter. What are the odds?

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  • Anonymous
    Jul 26, 2012 - 7:34AM

    @Mirza:
    You said a great thing. I agree with you about truth. When customer after using something goes to store and lies that it is not working . Customer service believe you without questioning your statement.
    Doctor in UK was warned or … When he called office that he was sick. Hospital some how found that he was moving his things from one place to other. It was considered serious offence.
    Same is true for India they have arrested people like one colonel for conspiracy but that never happens in Pakistan.

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  • Rafi Ka Deewana
    Jul 26, 2012 - 8:20AM

    Well written article. You forgot one important place – The Express Tribune! And it does have trolls!!

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  • Jul 26, 2012 - 8:22AM

    Its funny you bring Majorly Profound. (Gotta say this guy who blogs is brilliant) I am not even sure if he is a Pakistani. Since, he maintains such secrecy and blogs mostly about Pakistan one is inclined to think that he might be a Pakistani.

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  • Musings
    Jul 26, 2012 - 9:25AM

    The respected writer himself shows extra care in discussing a lot of supposedly sensitive issues on Twitter. Tweets are dangerously short (140 characters), making them vulnerable to unpleasant and consequential interpretations. So turning to this medium to express your thoughts is neither advisable nor workable. That he must know better than a layman.

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  • s shah
    Jul 26, 2012 - 9:28AM

    Excellent article. Majorly Profound is simply the best satirist in the subcontinent and it is worth going on twitter just to read his witty, acerbic tweets. Bravo, Major!

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  • Abbas
    Jul 26, 2012 - 10:47AM

    Very right! That’s why I support democracy no matter in whatever form it is present now. It’s a long process and I am confident that if non-elected institutions let this process continue for a couple of decades, our kids will not be facing such kind of bottlenecks.

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  • Salma
    Jul 26, 2012 - 11:15AM

    the writer is writing about the elite only – who don’t matter – not at all.

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  • saleem
    Jul 26, 2012 - 11:28AM

    Excellent summary of the situation. keep up the good work

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  • Logic Europe
    Jul 26, 2012 - 12:12PM

    sociall media can be equally manipulated by hiring a team of commentators ,recently this has been found to be happening in American presidential elections
    95 percent of voting public doesn’t go on social media which they use mostly for entertainment

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  • Jul 26, 2012 - 12:19PM

    In case the democaracy is not working. Then the Army shou;ld take it only for 10 years so that during this period all the faces are changed.

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  • dair_hushiyar
    Jul 26, 2012 - 3:11PM

    Zabardast article……Sirjee

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  • Prabhjyot Singh Madan
    Jul 26, 2012 - 3:55PM

    PTI——handsome looking jamait I islami with fuhrer imran Khan . I am worried about Pakistan for India’s sake.My generation has seen peace and I don’t want my child to face something he has no idea about. Please stabalize your country for our sake.. rab rakha

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  • Anonymous
    Jul 26, 2012 - 4:12PM

    @Abid Baloch:
    All followers of Taliban Khan worshipped mush gunman and say same things for T Kan as they used to say for Mush. He is is honest and better than others.Majority are intellectually handicapped!
    How many cricketers in Pakistan have house worth of 120 chores?

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  • Habib Sanai
    Jul 26, 2012 - 6:45PM

    As crisp and brilliant as ever Mr. Naqvi writes.Recommend

  • imran
    Jul 26, 2012 - 9:08PM

    I am unable to open twitter site in Khushab…any one can tell me whether it is same problem in other areas of country.

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  • Manoj Joshi
    Jul 26, 2012 - 10:15PM

    The idea shared by Faizal H Naqvi with regard to the Freedom of Media nee Press within Pakistan is indeed most needed in order to strengthen the democracy within that nation. There are apprehensions voiced by a few like Abid Baloch and Raza Khan that the presence of PTI may not allow the press in Pakistan to function freely and as stated by Raza Khan that the situation having reached beyond repairs indicate the pessimism that is writ large within the Pakistani society which needs to be changed to optimism and is certainly a challenging task. The freedom of press within Pakistan will take time and cannot be carried out on a war footing. Checks and balances are needed and the media in any nations needs to be restrained from indulging in yellow journalism and with it sensationalising news. These aspects are a part of growing up and having acquired maturity the media does start to behave in much more responsible and mature manner. India too, has passed through this phase but having been a democracy since 1947 the Indian media has already reached the level of maturity and is much more responsible than what it was in the past. In Pakistan the media has not been able to grow due to the long spells of marshal law and now when democracy is apparently functioning within the nation the press has an oppurtunity to develop. This is essential for the overall development of Pakistan and more over democracy as a system within that Islamic nation.

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  • Mir Agha
    Jul 26, 2012 - 10:16PM

    Social media is on its way to being regulated just like any other form of media throughout the world. The leftists seem to despise being picked on and found a temporary refuge. Laws are going to be made to hold people accountable – this isn’t anarchy. The anonymity does not lead to proper conclusions, such that you cannot be sure whether or not the tweeter is who you think he is – hence i doubt the twitters cited by the author are Pakistani, until proven.

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  • Kataria
    Jul 26, 2012 - 10:19PM

    Safe for pseudo-intellectuals, for now.

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  • abid
    Jul 26, 2012 - 11:36PM

    some of these et contributors need to understand how social media works…
    or may be they just dont want people to differ with them…
    pti has a huge following in the social media. It is much greater in number than any political party
    in pakistan. It is not possible for pti to control all of it’s online supporters. They are not under control of pti. They have their own views and express it in their manner this doesnt mean all the blame should be lumped on pti.

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  • fahad
    Jul 26, 2012 - 11:51PM

    very good research but all insafians are not troll…some of thm may be but othrs are polite too..

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  • Jul 28, 2012 - 12:04PM

    problematic too. some people lacks tolerance and abused the other participents. social media needs to check this trend.with out it the the people in the past used to gather in Hujras at the evening ,on other points of the villages /cities and liston one another attentively. The past social contacts have broken,for the current social media has restricted educated/uneducated,workers, kashtkars(cultivators) Zamindars to their beds /drawing rooms.Nether Casino, nor Monaliza, and like wise are no more in place. Now it is a dream. if some go to Fiftis,sixtis of pakistan, that looked more beatiful than the present Europe.

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