It was Christmas holidays back in America in late December 2007; I was standing in the kitchen with my aunt in their Seattle home when I got word of her assassination.

Pinging from the phone laying there next to the hot pies, familiar casseroles and bubbling champagne was news from afar, friends from Pakistan texting that Benazir Bhutto had died.

It was a late afternoon for us there on the Pacific Northwest, but back in the Mad-Max wilds of Rawalpindi, a buzzing ancient town, another world from the clean glassiness of a snowy city, it was mid-morn and Benazir’s pretty head lay lifeless there, somewhere on a hospital bed, full of bullets.

I first met Benazir in 1999 when I was working with CNN International in London. She was in self-imposed exile in Dubai at the time and I was junior on the news desk and often kept from intermingling with the important guests, but as a young woman with an avid interest in women in politics I was trying to convince my boss to let me speak with her and when Benazir overheard us; she put her hand up from the round table of the newsroom, guards surrounding her and gestured to let me in and we talked for over an hour, over a cup of tea of course. That was a life-changing moment and the beginning of a wonderful friendship.

I was struck by realizing that as a British-American I still had not at that time nor still in the case of the United States, had a female President. I wondered then about this exotic place, Pakistan that elected a woman and yet all I had ever heard was that Pakistan is a scary place, absolutely full of terrorists and men who hate and oppress women. I liked Benazir straight away.

SHE WAS ELEGANT, ERUDITE, INTELLIGENT AND VERY FEMININE SOMETHING POWERFUL WOMEN IN THE WEST ARE PRESSURED TO GIVE UP

She was elegant, erudite, intelligent and very feminine something powerful women in the West are pressured to give up if they want to be taken seriously. They have to act like a man, wear business suit blazers and speak in a lower, assertive voice.

Since first coming to Pakistan in 2000 I have grown to love the antiquity and vibrancy of the powerful land and the warmth, sweetness and generosity of the people. I feel, I have grown with Pakistan from being a young woman teacher there in 2005 and later teaching with the illustrious Professor Shabana Fayyaz at Quaid e Azam University and discovered my love of teaching and working with young people there, and have gone on to work with LUMs and Peshawar University archives.

I spent 3 months in 2006 in the heavenly and breath-taking beauty of Upper Hunza Valley, admittedly not on purpose; I got trapped there due to landslides on my way to China. The roads were swept away temporarily, this was before Abotabad Lake.

I WORKED FOR DAWN NEWS AND EXPRESS 24/7 LIVING HERE WITH MY BABY DAUGHTER, VIOLET WHO TOOK HER FIRST LITTLE STEPS ON PAKISTAN SOIL

I have fond memories of sleeping on rooftops, seeing shooting stars and waking to the sounds of roosters and donkeys. In 2009-10, I worked for Dawn News and Express 24/7 living here with my baby daughter, Violet who took her first little steps on Pakistan soil. I covered operations in Swat with the military and developed a long- term friendship-mentorship with the late Maulana Sam-ul-Haq who gave me unique perspectives about the injustice of the war, and I learned a lot about Islam from him.

Over the last years, I did a show on Indus News, where I had the unique opportunity to travel into the past, doing a 13-part series on each of the 13 gates of the Walled City of Lahore. I had a fabulous team of professionals and one of the most creative producers I’ve had the pleasure to work with, Farhan Adeel who came up with brilliant ideas such as shooting my dusty boots walking through the markets or trailing my hands over the old stones of the Shahi Hammam and havelis.

In 2014 while working for the BBC in London, I spent a year on a story Operation Bullfinch about elements of the Pakistan community in the UK and worked closely with Maliha Hussein from Mehergarh Institute.

So many of my Pakistani female friends are respectable and empowered professional women. Both of my young daughters have lived in Pakistan, have studied Urdu and learned Islam, frequently visiting the local mosques.

MY 7 YEAR OLD DAUGHTER EMILIA SPOKE UP ON HER RETURN IN OXFORD AFTER A SCREENING OF “I AM MALALA”  AND CHALLENGED THE FILM STATING THAT SWAT WAS NOTHING LIKE HOW IT WAS DEPICTED

Like any other kids, they sleepover and have playdates at their friends’ houses in Islamabad and love it very much and are fiercely protective of Pakistan. In fact, last summer after spending weeks in Swat while I was filming my documentary, my 7 year old daughter Emilia spoke up on her return in Oxford after a screening of “I am Malala” where her father was in attendance and challenged the film stating that Swat was nothing like how it was depicted.

I’ve spent 5 years working on a documentary film, ‘Pomegranates in Lahore’ following a handful of girls and women from various areas doing remarkable things, which comes out later this year.  My experiences of being a reporter in Pakistan have been incredible, and I have tried to tell a positive story about this misunderstood place, and I am still trying to do just that.

The media has changed significantly over the years, particularly with social media.

Despite being a reporter, I have not opened up a Twitter account and have been dubious about how it may be used in a manipulative fashion. From my recent research on the matter, the point about truth seems to actually be irrelevant.

What we are facing today is phenomena of power with social media as a tool to mobilize energies and tap into the collective conscience of bias, and this is done on an emotional basis according to experts.

American President Donald Trump is the case in point where he incites violence and hatred giving a sense of permission to act on this, such has happened with police brutality that sparked off the current racial protests.

The allegations against Her Excellency Benazir Bhutto could be construed in the same vein; this taps into mindsets that are already there such as anti-women, negativity towards Pakistan or even hatred for it, and anti-Islam.

This not only impacts the national mood, but it directly undermines women all over Pakistan and worldwide, given the iconic status of Benazir Bhutto, an international symbol of women’s rights.

In an article last year in Psychology Today, the mental health of those who abuse social media including platforms like Twitter concerns their need to get attention and power for reasons of esteem in order to quell the rewards oriented parts of their brain in a “me-centric” manner, which are the same brain patterns of psychotic behaviour which create a satisfying cortisone rush from the brain.

TWITTER CAN BE ABUSED AS A SHORT-TERM ENTERTAINMENT, THE TWEETER BEING HIGHLY MANIPULATIVE BY INDULGING IN BIAS USUALLY TO GET ATTENTION OR TO GAIN POPULARITY

Twitter can be abused as a short-term entertainment, the tweeter being highly manipulative by indulging in bias usually to get attention or to gain popularity. Those who follow vitriolic or inflammatory ‘tweeters’ can equally be mentally unhealthy such as lonely or disenfranchised individuals seeking social acceptance from a group and they may enjoy having a venue to release their own anger and resentments; they may feel they have been let down in life according to Chen Y., Zhao J.’s research, “Anger Is More Influential Than Joy. In all of this, there is an addictive aspect to social media. Here it is mentioned that Donald Trump barely goes a day without tweeting attacks on someone or something.

Twitter researchers found tweets are particularly engaging to our emotions and sense of self, Ley wrote, “this is your brain on twitter” while demonstrating that it impacts the auxiliary amygdala, an overactive amygdala would put us in a sense of survival mode.

According to further research reading a twitter, timeline generates 64 percent more activity in the parts of the brain active in emotion than normal Web use. Overall this means using twitter directly engages our emotional and survival brains, which is essentially the primitive brain, the least intelligent or maturely developed brain evolved to the frontal lobes where humans began to reason, philosophise and manufacturing principles.

An article by Ferrara and Young’s of the same journal observes social media is in fact emotionally contagious as are negative sentiments online. These findings were rated using the Sentistrength, an algorithmic text analyser. The hypothesis is that negative, combative styles of communication embolden other’s antagonisms. Previous research showed anger to be the most viral emotion.

HIDING BEHIND A MONITOR, YOU ONLY HAVE TO PUSH THE RED BUTTON “SEND”; HATRED AND DISINFORMATION SPREAD RAPIDLY ONLINE

This new current of power coursing beneath our very noses is more diabolic than it appears. This is deeper than gossip and seems to be eroding the fabric of our society. There is real-world bloodshed as a consequence of its dissociative aspect, a relinquishing of ethics, hiding behind a monitor, you only have to push the red button “send”; hatred and disinformation spread rapidly online and some followers self-radicalised as a result, which is highly mobilizing. Right-wing rhetoric from the YouTube site called PewDiePie, with 76 million followers, one of the largest in the world, was considered to have incited mass shootings in two mosques in Christchurch and synagogues in Pewsey.

NY Times, Simone Landon wrote that global networks of white supremacists generated connections between killers spanning continents highlighting that social media was the tool used to spread the white extremist and anti-Islamic message.

The primary task of civil society is to have compassion, understanding and common humanity, something Covid19 has been reminding us of and a positive outcome of the pandemic that seems to be waking up a sleepwalking world.

I believe the peaceful protests “black lives matter” and/or “I can’t breathe” in America that has now caused the whole world to rise up might not have happened without this new sense of world community.

There is a compromise of ethics in general concerning the roles of social media and social responsibility for journalists and civilians alike when using public platforms to attack others. This, however, opens all kinds of debate about weaponizing a human being’s rights for freedom of speech in a less regulated cross border space allowing a breeding ground for defamation.

As a journalist, I have a fundamental belief in the right to freedom of speech, as a necessity to protect human rights. Along with that also comes however a moral obligation to act with the highest integrity, by researching and fact-checking thoroughly, with the chief interest of benefiting and furthering society opposed to ones own personality or ego.

According to Greg Lukianoff, President FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) a non-profit organization “if Twitter follows anything that looks like American law the standard for defamation of a public figure is extremely high. Essentially the alleged defamer would either have to of been knowingly lying or incredibly sloppy and reckless with the truth”.

AS FAR AS FOREIGNERS MAKING DEROGATORY COMMENTS ABOUT LEADERS OF OTHER COUNTRIES, INTERNATIONAL LAW GETS BLURRED

As far as foreigners making derogatory comments about leaders of other countries, international law gets blurred. However, the expectation is to follow and respect the national law and culture of any country that a foreign individual is visiting, trans-nationally one could, therefore, argue this should be the moral case when posting on the internet.

The growth of social media platforms around the world, along with the associated spread of fake news and hate speech, has put significant pressure on the world community’s ability to balance the fundamental human right of freedom of speech with the necessary mechanisms to protect people and states from defamation and political intrigue.

The Article 19 advocacy group focuses on this modern enigma and provides well-received guidance to the international community which is often adopted. The United Nations Special Rapporteur amongst others has repeatedly requested that defamation should not be criminalised i.e. punishable with prison sentences in order to avoid any unbalanced restriction on the freedom of speech.

Defamation, however, remains a criminal offence in most countries around the world, despite this call for all criminal defamation laws to be abolished and replaced with the appropriate civil defamation laws.

The laws protecting against defamation are generally based on two things, for respect for the rights or reputations of others, along with a state’s need to protect national security and public order, public health or morals. A nation’s particular cultural and inner-political situation may lead to quite different laws and consequences when dealing with such cases.

Ultimately in today’s society in view of the unregulated nature and sheer size of the problem, we can feel better that any reasonable person when assessing a post would certainly consider the credibility of the poster themselves, along with the content before making any rational choice of whether or not to believe or take action on the content.

LET’S HOPE RESPECT AND GOODWILL TO ALL MEN/WOMEN WILL BE BETTER REFLECTED IN QUALITY, ETHICAL JOURNALISM WHERE ALLEGATIONS ARE MADE ONLY FROM HARD RESEARCHED EVIDENCE

Let’s hope respect and goodwill to all men/women will be better reflected in the quality, ethical journalism where allegations are made only from hard researched evidence which is provided simultaneously, and that the use of social media is constructive in order to confront real issues that require being raised and that they are done so in an appropriate manner with evidence and respectful debate.

The last time I saw Benazir was in Dubai the summer before she died. I always believed we were meant to cross paths; we share the same alma mater, The University of Oxford, where I am still based. She was elected as President of both the Oxford Union and the Women’s Society, of the latter as was I with our shared focus on women’s rights.

She is an icon for women globally despite any controversy around her politics.  For me personally, I believe even in death Benazir does rise above these latest accusations. Women with real power are always a target. Her Excellency was elected Prime Minister of Pakistan twice and was the first female to hold that post in the Muslim world, an achievement still a bridge too far for any woman in America.

She has been imprisoned repeatedly by Zia ul Haq, exiled, extradited, convicted, elected and eventually assassinated. She has gone down in history as a respected champion of women and nothing will ever change that, she will always be, my friend.

This article was originally published on The News Today

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