Can the Great Wall stop PTI?

Published June 9, 2024
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

WITH the budget round the corner and the IMF-enforced hardship it will inevitably bring for the urban poor and the middle class in particular, the question is whether the jailed PTI leader Imran Khan can channel the resultant public anger into public protests and imperil the hybrid system.

I agree that what I’ve just said deals with hypothetical situations. But you will also agree that while hypothetical, these are also very realistic, plausible scenarios, and therefore, it won’t be out of place to discuss them and try and assess the state of play over the next few weeks.

PTI has had phenomenal success in the use of social media, not just for reaching out to, and messaging, its supporters but also for organising its rank and file. As two recent posts on X on Imran Khan’s handle demonstrated, despite being imprisoned, he retains the ability to communicate with his support base.

Ergo, it is safe to assume that if the budget triggers any popular backlash, the use of social media can potentially play a vital role in galvanising and channelising that public anger into an anti-government movement. Any such exercise will have to overcome many challenges.

Pakistan may be just a few days away from deploying and extensively using a Chinese system to monitor and block social media content.

First and foremost are the repercussions from last year’s May 9 protests that drove a wedge between the PTI and the establishment and opened up a seemingly unbridgeable gulf between the two. In its aftermath, the crackdown that ensued tested the will of the PTI support base in the face of state oppression.

While many party loyalists, including a number of women, from Yasmeen Rashid and Aliya Hamza to Sanam Javed, have remained incarcerated for over a year now, there has been little public pressure that the party has been able to muster for their release.

Even then, the leader himself has been getting relief in one case after another from the judiciary, a section of which, it seems, would be on a collision course with the establishment because of such decisions. This alienation between the two can lead to untold consequences that the country and its shirtless multitudes can least afford.

For its part, the establishment feels that the legal cases against the former prime minister are ironclad. The establishment appears to believe that some in the superior courts are not deciding the cases on merit but on the basis of a soft corner for the PTI leader. Some of the judges have said that immense pressure is being brought to bear on them from the security services because their judgements are based on the evidence before them and decided strictly in line with the law and the Constitution, and not what the establishment wants.

As we speak, there seems to be no sign of anyone moving away from confrontation. If anything, there is daily evidence of positions being further cemented, with Mr Khan and his imme­nse support base on one side, and the establishment and its civilian political allies on the other.

Let’s take up another vital factor that would play a role over the coming weeks. Yes, the reference here is to social media. The PTI had a head-start in the social media game, and its complete and total domination in that area was demonstrated in February’s election.

After the ECP decision to deny PTI its ‘bat’ symbol was endorsed by the Supreme Court, party candidates stood in that election as ‘independents’. Ahead of polling day, many observers expressed the fear that, having been deprived of its symbol, its candidates would be at a gross disadvantage as voters (some illiterate) would struggle to find and stamp their desired person on the ballot paper.

But lo and behold! those fears proved ill-founded. The PTI social media teams sprang into action and developed an app which facilitated the workers/ voters at the grassroots level in identifying party-backed candidates.

I can’t say to what extent the denial of the symbol impacted the party vote eventually, but it would be safe to say it didn’t turn out to be the decisive handicap as some had hoped. This is how vital the social media is to PTI’s success. Right or wrong, its narrative has been seen as a winner, and any counter-narrative has failed to gain any traction.

If what sources are saying is correct, Pakistan may be just a few days away from deploying and extensively using a Chinese system, similar to the one called the ‘Great Wall of China’ or GWC (which Beijing uses to great success), to monitor and block social media content, and even police VPNs which many Pakistanis have used since X was blocked. Not sure if this is part of CPEC!

This software will be used, we are told, in a manner that does not place any obstacles in the path of dozens of software companies and call centres that are currently earning the country some foreign exchange. A multibillion-dollar market still remains untapped.

That is the plan at least. Our competence to deliver such fine-tuned systems is another matter. Who knows if the draconian legislation that the Punjab Assembly has passed to muzzle social media, and similar proposed legislation that is currently before parliament in Islamabad, is a back-up in case our version of the GWC fails?

It is remarkable that any discussion of the media these days almost always excludes traditional media, such as the dozens of 24x7 TV channels and newspapers, apart from online news sites. There could only be one reason for this: the traditional media is now so much under the thumb of the authorities that it is largely seen as their mouthpiece. Notwithstanding the very, very few honourable exceptions. Tragic, if you ask me.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, June 9th, 2024

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