KARACHI, July 14: The country’s religious majority has to own problems being faced by the minorities or else things will not change, said Anthony Permal on Saturday, the last day of Pakistan-India Social Media Mela 2012.

Being one of the panellists, Mr Permal was speaking during a session titled ‘Connecting with the world in their own voice: bridging the mainstream media gap’.

He said privileged people from his community were not speaking up. “They might be doing so in private but not otherwise, as there is an element of fear, valid fear,” he said when asked if the minorities felt threatened after the brutal murders of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti.

“Post-Taseer and -Bhatti, where one was from a majority and the other a minority but both raised their voices on the same issue, there is fear,” he added.

Mr Permal said he’s a Pakistani Christian who ‘represents all persecuted minorities’.

Imran Jattala, founder and chief editor of Ahmadiyya Times, opined that social media gave voice to various groups. On Skype from Los Angeles, he said: “Earlier there were only a few voices from here or there raising an issue, but now things are different due to social media. You can’t suppress our voices.”

He added that social media would provide checks and balances where the thin line between journalism and commercial media was being blurred.

A Hazara Shia from Balochistan, Irfan Ali said that social media provided a platform to the minorities.

“Our personal biases prevent us from bringing forth the truth, but Facebook, Twitter and Youtube have changed this. Now the world can see the atrocities being committed on minorities,” he added.

However, Smita Chouhdry from India said: “It takes time to change, as change always comes slowly.”

Commenting on the impact that social media can have, the woman behind an online forum that gave voice to the Naxals narrated as to how the marginalised community in Chhattisharh were given a voice by the use of telecom lines. She added that the idea came as the mainstream media was ignoring minority voices.

“Now even the government visits the forum and keeps a check on the complaints filed by the community,” she said, adding that it took them eight years to come to this point with some positive change.

Mr Permal commented that Pakistani politicians in their professional capacity might reply to complaints tweeted to them or take up issues, but so far official patronage was missing.

“In recent times, Farahnaz Ispahani took up the issue of the blocking of Ahmedi sites following tweets condemning the ban, but no official party statement came,” he added.

He said that government officials and political parties were generally lax when it came to addressing minority issues. But they should make their position clear, he said.

Bullies, trolls and some more

‘Fight club: the rise of the troll’ and ‘Stalkers and bullies: the dark side of the internet’ dealt with dangers, real and otherwise, in cyber space.

With Bina Shah and Mohsin Saeed defining and redefining trolls and the complex characters they are, the no-holds-barred session elicited laughter with some R-rated comments. However, on a serious note, it also highlighted that there was not much one could do to stop the abuse at the hands of trolls — in Internet parlance, a troll is someone who posts inflammatory or irrelevant messages in an online community with an aim to provoke readers into an emotional response or disrupt normal on-topic discussion — apart from blocking them.

The dark side

In ‘Stalkers ...’, Nabiha, a teacher and a ‘part-time feminist’, shared a personal account where she was targeted by her students. “The boys at Atchison set up an Orkut account, calling me a call girl and posted my contact details there. I left the school after the management refused to take action against the students.”

Sabah Hajji narrated how technology has opened new avenues for youngsters in Jammu. “We hear such horrid tales, yet the youngsters don’t realise the dark side of mobile phones.” Jahan Ara of P@sha spoke on the need of laws to protect people online, particularly youngsters. She said that the Prevention of Electronic Crime Ordinance (PECO), which lapsed in 2007, was ‘dangerous’ and there must be consultation with all stakeholders.

During the question and answer session, actress Mira Hashmi called for parental responsibility when it came to online activities of their children.

However, many aspects such as the issue of pornography and reaching out to a wider audience when it came to creating awareness went unheard.

Tweeting for rights

In ‘Negotiating complexity: human rights and social media’, Ali Dayan Hasan of the Human Rights Watch gave a rundown of the use of social media globally for disseminating news about human rights abuses.

“The human rights movement is built on the simple premise that information is power. All governments hate to have their human rights abuses highlighted,” he said.

On an incident that taught him the importance of social media, he said: “Last year journalist Saleem Shahzad disappeared. Before his disappearance, he had left me with information whereby I could make a credible claim that he had received threats from agencies.

“I started putting this information on Twitter and then it became a global story,” said Mr Dayan, adding that this wasn’t the first time an allegation was made against the ISI or other agencies. “It was, however, the first time an allegation was made in real time.”

Placing the information in a public domain provided news peg to private TV channels that flashed his pictures repeatedly and ran tickers that ‘HRW claims Shahzad was kidnapped by the ISI’.

“Our purpose in raising the issue was to ensure Saleem Shahzad emerged alive but it turned out to be tragic, because later his body was found,” he said.

“My position and HRW position is clear. We never say that he was killed by the ISI. Who killed him has to be determined by an independent probe. However, it’s important to note that my colleagues in Egypt, Syria, etc have used this mechanism and have been able to save lives,” he opined.

Hits and misses

Some of the well-received sessions included ‘The rise of online comics’ and ‘Crowd-funding films’.

With Annie Zaidi and Jugal Mody as panellists and Mohsin Siddqui as moderator, ‘The art of storytelling’ was a ‘lost’ conversation.

Suited more to a literary gathering, despite the fact that Ms Zaidi and Mr Siddiqui kept on losing focus, it left many in attendance wondering as to why it was being discussed on this forum.

Then there was ‘The Facebook food furore: does social media nurture or damage emerging brands’ with the term ‘food trolls’ being introduced by Indian journalist Karuna John.

Along with Ms John, Mohammad Hanif, Mehmal Sarfaraz and Norbet Akmedia during a session titled ‘Twitter is the new newsroom: the changing face of journalism’ spelt out the use of the micro-blogging website as a medium for ‘breaking news’ and the responsibility it entailed to report correctly and not fall for ‘lazy journalism’.

Last but not the least, the stand-up comedy ‘Gustakhi Maaf’ by Sanjay Rajoura had the audience in fits as he went to regale them with witty banter and plenty of innuendoes.

However, ‘Banned: censorship , regulation and control in the internet economy’ with Sana Saleem, Sher Ali and Faheem Zafar as panellists and Yaser Latif Hamdani as a moderator turned out to be a damp squib. Rather than focus on the issues of censorship that is a real threat to freedom of speech and expression in a country like Pakistan, it often turned into a monotonous monologue with the moderator haplessly looking around.



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