Resisting Martial Law (Just Don't Tell Mom)

Young people in Pakistan use Web, e-mail in virtual fight against repression.

February 19, 2009, 1:18 AM

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Nov. 9, 2007 — -- Pakistan's fastest-growing guerrilla force is less worried about getting jailed by President Pervez Musharraf than getting in trouble with mom and dad.

Amid a media crackdown that has knocked TV news off the air and threatened journalists who criticize Musharraf with jail terms, Pakistani students have come together over the Internet. But please don't tell their parents.

They're finding new ways to meet virtually in a country where police are brutally putting down street protests.

"I can't talk on this line. It's probably under surveillance," Rashid, a leading student activist at Lahore University of Management Sciences tells me when I reach him on his mobile phone. He calls back a minute later from another line. Like other students interviewed, he only wanted to be identified by one name.

Rashid and a group of friends have launched the Emergency Times (, a daily newsletter that provides legal explanation, commentary and regular updates of Pakistan's widening political crisis.

"When martial law was imposed, we decided we had to do something," he explains.

The first edition set out to analyze Musharraf's legal explanation for suspending the Constitution. It started getting passed around by e-mail, and before long, students all over the country were getting in contact, wanting more information. Pakistanis studying abroad also got in, flooding Rashid with requests for news.

Less than a week since emergency rule was imposed, they are handing out hundreds of copies of Emergency Times a day on the Lahore campus. The Web edition is e-mailed to thousands -- no one knows exactly how many. "Now we are updating it constantly," says Rashid.

In a country where half the population is illiterate and only 12 percent have access to the Internet, Rashid now wants to get their daily report into the Urdu print and radio media. "We believe we have a role, as students, to play in all of this," he says.

Under martial law, there's no freedom of speech or right to gather. Young Pakistanis who fear arrest if they meet in person are coming together in a host of chat rooms to discuss the political crisis -- and to discuss hopes for a brighter political future for Pakistan.

They trade information about upcoming protests by text message and e-mail. They post photos of the events on Web sites like Facebook and Flickr. Videos of police arresting demonstrators get posted on YouTube, and are then distributed by e-mail.

Pakistan's students have inspired their counterparts in places as far-flung as Brazil and Boston to join in protests that call for an end to military rule here. And they've gotten the regular media to cover them. A protest in the Boston Commons Saturday is expected to draw 500 people. They've been promised coverage by The Boston Globe and the Harvard Crimson.

Samad Khurram, a Harvard sophomore, says quick action by Web guerrillas may have saved Pakistani students who were facing arrest.

"Students at LUMS [Lahore] were surrounded by police Wednesday," he says. "So we all started calling, texting and e-mailing the word to everyone they knew, and also to the media."

Before long, the scene was flooded with people and cameras. The police let the students go.

"I think we are helping," says Khurram. "At the very least, we are getting the message out."

Khurram's blog ( groups everything from inspirational messages, music videos and quotes from Che Guevara. He's already got more than 6,000 subscribers to his daily list serve.

He gets a lot of posts from other young people encouraging him to spread the word. "We get nasty messages too -- mostly people who are pro-Musharraf," he says. "The good part is it's encouraging a debate."

If anything good comes out of Pakistan's turbulence, the students hope it's a new determination to change the face of politics here. Many young Pakistanis say they are tired of leaders like Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, two former prime ministers who have both been thrown out on corruption charges.

"We firmly believe that unless the military leaves, there will be no space for any new leaders to emerge," says Rashid. "We are not affiliated with any party but we stand firmly with groups that are fighting for a return to civilian rule."

The students also trade practical information in their blogs and list serves about how to evade arrest, how to meet up without getting caught and how to escape when police fire tear gas.

Many are just as concerned about getting in trouble with their parents as they are with being arrested in the nationwide crackdown.

Khurram waits every night until his parents fall asleep before he starts editing his blog.

"If the security agencies find out, then I'll be arrested. If my parents find out, I'm going to be under house arrest," he says. "Then I'll have more in common with Benazir Bhutto than just the Harvard connection."

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