September 17, 2019

Crackdown against online hate speech: Bridge the gulf of mistrust

Earlier on Wednesday, Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry expressed resolve to clamp down against “hate speech” on social media. He also stated that a working group of security agencies including FIA was already working on it and expressed hope that in the coming weeks, strict action would be taken against fake accounts and “extremist narratives” spreading online.

On the face of it, crackdown against online hate speech is a welcome step. No-one should be allowed to incite violence against any group on the basis of religion, caste or creed.  In this regard, Pakistan’s cybercrime law, PECA, has in place punishment up to seven years for anyone spreading hate speech online.  Meanwhile, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, PTA, has also blocked around 11,544 URLs under “anti-state/anti-judiciary” and “sectarian/hatespeech” content category under powers given by Section 37 of PECA.

However, digital rights advocates and journalists have long expressed their apprehensions regarding the clamp down of legitimate speech under the pretext of “hate speech.”  Firstly, the term “hate speech” has not been explicitly defined under PECA.  This allows government to make subjective interpretations about the term hate speech and creates the possibility of detention and arrest of anyone engaging in dissenting speech, as long as the government can brand it as “hate speech”.   Rights groups have feared that this vague provision can be used to silence political dissent and intimidate civil society.

These concerns are not blown out of the proportion.  According to Google transparency report 2018, PTA had requested Google to remove a Google Drive file under PECA’s Section 11 for “hate speech”. The document was an open letter signed by academics across Pakistan regarding restrictions on academic freedom and increased repression on university campuses. It was written after Professor Ammar Ali Jan was removed from Punjab University for his “political views”.

If the letter of university professors can be flagged as “hate speech”, one wonders how many websites have been unlawfully blocked under this pretext. To add insult to injury, PTA has always been secretive about the websites it has blocked under various categories. Many Civil society organizations have also tried reaching out to PTA to seek a list of the websites that they had blocked for being “anti-state” and affiliated with “terrorist” groups. However, PTA has always remained quiet on such requests.  Above all, there is no defined mechanism on how one can appeal to PTA against its decision of censoring a website or a URL.  Additionally, cybercrime investigating agency FIA’s involvement in harassing journalists and civil society members in the recent past is another point of concern. Their total disregard for respecting the due process in arresting the journalist Razi Dada, has only raised red flags.

In the midst of aforementioned concerns coupled with the current political climate of mistrust, it is natural for journalists and civil society to view the recent statement of Mr. Chaudhry with suspicion. However, the mistrust can be bridged if they are taken on board and efforts are made to remove the legal lacunas surrounding online hate speech. Additionally, to counter trust deficit and remove doubts about the government’s intentions on the hate speech crackdown, there has to be more transparency around PTA’s decisions, including public availability of list of content that is being blocked along with the reasoning for blockage.

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