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I’ve been spending some time looking into different political movements that are seeking a change in status, to see how digital media tools are being used to advance political agendas, communications, and news and information around that issue. I’m working with Anand Varghese, a grad student at Georgetown, who also blogs at The Democratic Piece, and together we’ve begun mapping and analyzing information sources around several South Asian conflicts – namely the Baloch autonomy movement, the Kashmir independence movement, and the Sri Lankan war.

Why these conflicts? We’ve been working on a number of hypotheses regarding how digital media affect communication and information in and around conflict, and the functional relationship these tools have to the course of conflict. These particular conflicts have several features that make them valuable for analysis:

On the technology side, they have rapidly spreading Internet and cellphone infrastructure, and relatively low costs and barriers to entry. India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka all have booming Internet and cell phone information and communications economies and cultures, and a core elite of technologists.

Politically, they are long-running conflicts that revolve around issues of identity, nationalism, language, and resource access, and threaten established state sovereignty.

In terms of media, the states involved have a checkered history with censorship, state control of mass media infrastructure, and intermittently, a history of violence attacks against journalists and other media workers. See the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) for reporting on these attacks.

Finally, these conflicts get minimal attention in the international press. Reporting from local media outlets is frequently partisan, biased, and censored. Individual attacks and events rarely get substantial coverage, with murky motives and little research. These conflict zones are also restricted in access to journalists and researchers by the parties to conflict. In short, they are long-running conflicts with established narrative frames, little prospect of resolution, and sketchy information sources.

So today, Balochistan. We’ve been watching Balochistan because the PPP has promised that long-running grievances regarding political status within the Pakistani state may finally find some relief. This is due in part to the rise of Asif Ali Zardari – co-chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) – to power. Zardari, who is from a Baloch tribe in Sindh, recently apologized to the Balochistan for Pakistan’s “excesses,” and pledged “maximum” autonomy for the province.

Previously, the Pakistan government has censored Baloch autonomy movement websites, both around specific events, such as the August 2006 killing of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti by a Pakistani military attack, and increasingly, as part of a more systematic effort on the part of the Musharraf government to restrict information about political autonomy movements at the provincial level.

This information gap is probably largest in regard to the disappearance of thousands of Pakistanis in the past few years, hundreds of whom are from Balochistan. See Balochvoice for a list from 2007. It’s also one of the key issues that Chief Justice Chaudhry was investigating when he was dismissed by Musharraff in 2007, which sparked the national protests that have in part led to the ouster of Mush’s party in the February 2008 parliamentary elections. Chaudry, of course, is also from Balochistan.

With the shift in power in Pakistan, where are the sources of information on Balochistan now, and to what degree are digital media being used by Baloch automony/nationalist movements? Has there been any change?

We looked at some 60 websites that deal with Balochistan. Our working assumption is that traditional news outlets are only one source of information for this conflict – journalists have restricted access to the region, and the story is expensive to cover and not a high priority. Further, there are few local news sources. Pakistan is one of the few stories frequently covered in the international press (the Taliban are reported to use Quetta as a base), but Balochistan autonomy is rarely the subject. Humanitarian organizations, human rights and civil society groups, research institutes, bloggers, participatory media websites, and news aggregators are a growing and important source of information about the conflict.

So our question – are these non-news sites actually expanding information and bringing depth of understanding about the conflict, albeit with different objectives and evidentiary standards?

Our preliminary findings:

– only a few websites, mostly separatist sympathizers, keep regular track of news from the area, and publish it. Examples include balochwarna.org, balochvoice.com, thebaluch.com, and balochunity.org. These sites mix professional news sources such as the BBC and The Dawn with information from themselves, frequently quoting one another, as well as partisan bloggers, also presented as news.

– Most other websites focused on Baloch issues are irregularly updated, or no longer exist. Dozens of such sites are practically defunct.

– We found few bloggers with extensive coverage of Balochistan, such as The Glasshouse, Regaining Baloch Sovereignty. Many others are defunct, such as The Government of Balochistan in Exile and Baloch Freedom Movement. Some of these sites were serious efforts lasting years. It’s possible we’re seeing a retraction of Baloch-focused blogs (perhaps linked to a waning of the separatist movement – many ended in 2006 after Bugti’s death). These blogs are all highly partisan, and present mostly analysis and commentary, with almost no new information.

– While humanitarian groups, human rights and civil society groups provide occasional extensive research reports and policy recommendations, their output does not cover daily news, or on mapping the progress of the autonomy issue, but the analysis is generally much deeper and more sophisticated than news reports. See the Terrorism Monitor from the Jamestown Foundation as an example.

– Key news gathering organizations, including the AP, BBC, Reuters, and the national PK newspapers are still the predominant sources of news, although rather less so of in-depth analysis of the conflict. The wire services may have stringers in Baluchistan, but infrequently send correspondents. Regional Baloch newspapers are struggling with government censorship, advertising, and attracting readership.

– As for the recent political statements about maximum autonomy, the reaction within the Baloch nationalist movements have not yet been expressed publicly. Statements made by the PPP have mostly been interpreted as a push for a political coalition for the PPP within Balochistan (the PPP lost to PML-Q in Balochistan). It has yet to spark optimism regarding real autonomy. At the same time, the conflict continues. Muhammad Tahir reports that a “ten-week period in 2008 saw 76 insurgent-linked incidents reported, claiming the lives of 14 people and wounding 123.” See also the South Asia Terrorism Portal timeline. Tellingly, we were unable to find any news source with a similar frame for its coverage, while the Baloch nationalist websites linked to the timeline.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that most of the online information about Balochistan is in English, with some in Urdu. The status of Balochi language is an issue of great concern for Baloch nationalists, as its use is waning in favor of English and Urdu, and because of unresolved issues about orthography – arabic v. latin script. Blogging in Baloch appears minimal. The nationalist rhetoric often centers on the suppression of Balochi culture and language by the Pakistani state.

There may be other sources in the mass media on Baloch autonomy – especially radio and cable TV, and also possibly information via cell phone, but we’re not able to track those sources from afar. That’s the subject of another post.

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