Looking Back at 2012 in South Asia – Part I

Armed with more smartphones than ever before, we see an increasing number of South Asians stepping across borders through social media.

This year we saw the first India – Pakistan social media summit in Karachi. We also saw Indian and Bangladeshi hackers caught up in cyber wars, which started as a protest against border killings by Indian Border Security Forces.

Many South Asian governments are still not comfortable with new media; we have seen them resort to draconian measures to stop the free flow of information. Here we look back at some of the stories we covered in 2012, about the rise of social media in the region.

Web censorship and freedom of speech

Under the cloak of protecting the majority or the minority and to stop cyber crimes, many South Asian governments have enacted numerous laws that undermine people’s internet freedom and civil liberties.

Cartoon by Bryant Arnold, CartoonADay.com. Used under a Creative Commons 2.5 license (BY-NC)

Cartoon by Bryant Arnold, CartoonADay.com. Used under a Creative Commons 2.5 license (BY-NC)

India, being the largest democracy of the world took a giant leap back when it demanded 20 major Internet companies, including Google, Facebook, and Twitter present plans to filter “anti-religious,” or “anti-social” material from the content available to Indian citizens.

In April 2011 the Indian government quietly issued amendments to the IT rules restricting web content that is designated as “disparaging,” “harassing,” “blasphemous” or “hateful.” Indian netizens campaigned against it online and even engaged in a hunger strike in May 2012 to support an annulment motion against the new IT Rules-2011 in the Indian Rajya Sabha.

Not only the government, but the Indian entertainment Industry was also after social media as they demanded the courts to ban Torrents and Vimeo on copyright issues.

In August, the Indian government cracked down on various social media sites, banning some Facebook pages and Twitter handles, citing that they fueled the communal attacks on people from the North East.

In May, Twitter users in Pakistan suffered a total blanket censorship across all ISPs in the country, on order of the Pakistan Telecommunucation Authority which was attempting to black out ‘blasphemous’ content.

Activists of Jamat-e-Islami chant slogans against the anti-Islam movie released in the USA, Karachi, Pakistan. Image by Owais Aslam Ali. Copyright Demotix (14/9/2012)

Activists of Jamat-e-Islami chant slogans against the anti-Islam movie released in the USA, Karachi, Pakistan. Image by Owais Aslam Ali. Copyright Demotix (14/9/2012)

and Bangladesh banned YouTube in September after strong reactions against the hosting of controversial film Innocence of The Muslims. YouTube is still totally blocked in both the countries and India blocked only the video inside the country.

The RFP as seen in Pakistani newspapers. Image courtesy EFF

The RFP as seen in Pakistani newspapers. Image courtesy EFF

In an exemplary effort some Pakistani activists and bloggers reacted promptly to stop the Great Firewall, the proposed national “URL filtering and blocking system”. The $10 million system was required to enable the Pakistani government to ”handle a block list of up to 50 million URLs”

In August, the Pakistani government suspended mobile services in major cities on Eid to prevent terrorist attacks. This soon became a trend and since then mobile networks have been completely shut down a number of times in different parts of Pakistan evoking much criticism.

In Bangladesh a proposed online news policy was criticized heavily in social media which prompted the government to shelve it. In March, a Bangladesh court ordered concerned authorities to shut down five Facebook pages and a website for blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed, the Koran and other religious subjects.

In Sri Lanka, a new government regulation which applies steep fees for online ‘news’ website has generated much debate. Some are worried the broad implications of the law could extend to personal blogs, and may even prompt bloggers to resort to self-censorship, out of fear.

Prosecution for using Social Media

In Bangladesh the High Court sentenced a university teacher to a 6-month jail term after he failed to appear in court to face trial regarding his Facebook status update.

Remix from Bryant Arnold

Remix from Bryant Arnold. CC BY-NC

In India, a professor was arrested for forwarding a “defamatory” cartoon against the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Police also detained a 21-year-old woman after she posted a Facebook a status update protesting the total shutdown of Mumbai city following the death of the founder of the Shiv Shena party. Her friend, who ‘liked’ the update was also arrested. Both were later released on bail.

The Sri Lankan authorities raided offices of two news websites on allegation of criminal defamation and arrested nine journalists. In another incident the defense secretary threatened an editor of a local newspaper during an interview.

Role of MSM

Instead of helping an Indian girl being assaulted by 20 men outside a pub in Guwahati, the cameraman from a local Television channel shot a 30-minute video of the incident. The video had gone viral, with many raising media ethics questions and wondering whether India is becoming a nation of bystanders.

Image courtesy Blanknoise. CC BY-NC-SA

Earlier this month in Bangladesh the news that captured the nation's imagination and made the headlines across all the major newspapers, magazines and TV channels was the brutal murder of 24 year-old Biswajit Das, under full view of the public and media.

In March, certain areas of Kolkata in West Bengal, India, were brought to a grinding halt by protesters opposing  a certain tweet, allegedly posted by an Indian model, which was in turn published in a leading English daily.

Pakistan's fiery broadcast media was at the center of several social media campaigns this year. Pakistani talk show host Maya Khan, became the focus of many, after she aired an episode of moral policing on dating couples in her morning show. A successful social media campaign got her TV show scrapped from the networks. But she was later hired by another network where she invited a religious scholar to convert a young Hindu boy to Islam live on her show. But some say the conversion was forced. A leaked video showing popular anchorpersons Mehar Bokhari and Mubashar Lucman involved in a set-up interview also sent shock waves across the media industry and the people.

Nepali netizens were irked by a remark by a moderator of an Indian TV channel that “Nepal is a Territory of India.” They vented their reactions on different social networking sites.

Exemplary use of Social Media

In Bangladesh discrimination and oppression against the 45 indigenous tribes (adibashis) are not new. Some of the indigenous netizens are resorting to blogs, Facebook and other social media platforms to voice their concerns.

A road through Titas river. Image courtesy Sharat Chowdhury

To facilitate the transit of overloaded Indian cargo trucks through Bangladesh, a long diversion route had been built through the Titas river and its tributaries obstructing its flow in many parts. The fact was first divulged in a TV report. Investigative bloggers went to the scene and published the story with pictures which later prompted the authorities to remove the road.

Reconciliation is a much discussed buzzword across Sri Lanka. While there has been much talk about how to do it, a group called Sri Lanka Unites is actually promoting reconciliation and hope to young people by visiting schools and building a network of over 4500 student leaders from every district and community in Sri Lanka. They are also using social media extensively to maintain and promote the network.

In India, discrimination against Dalits still exist in many rural areas and in the private sphere. Dalit Camera, a YouTube Channel vows to highlight the plights of Dalits.

In part II of this post we'll be taking a look at other stories from South Asia, we covered this year.

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