December 7, 2019

Hate speech

PERHAPS more than most countries, Pakistan knows full well the wages of extremism.

Unlike mainstream media which has successfully, through self-regulation, controlled the dissemination of the kind of speech that promotes bigotry and violence, social media is a far more free-wheeling and unruly entity.

The government’s impending crackdown on extremist narratives on social media, announced on Wednesday, is an opportunity for the PTI government to show that it can distinguish between legitimate expression of political opinion and words that incite religious or ethnic hatred against individuals or communities.

About a year before coming to power, Imran Khan had accused the PML-N government of abusing the cybercrime law when some PTI activists were arrested, and denounced their detention as being “unacceptable in a democracy”. Several PTI legislators had also submitted a calling notice in the National Assembly seeking to discuss the “harassment of social media activists”.

Now that it is in power, the party can demonstrate that these were not merely empty gestures made only to advance its own cause. The information minister has rightly mentioned the importance of dialogue to prevent violence. An exchange of opinions, expressed civilly, is the lifeblood of a dynamic society.

Curbing hate speech in various formats including social media is one of the 20 points that comprise the National Action Plan. The civil-military leadership which devised the blueprint recognised that kinetic action without social intervention was meaningless.

Indeed, during the following year or so, a number of clerics were sentenced to prison for inciting violence and individuals found distributing extremist literature were also convicted.

However, it was a sporadic and piecemeal effort. In early 2017, five bloggers were picked up and disappeared despite having been cleared by the Islamabad High Court of blasphemy charges. A Dawn investigation a few months later found that 41 banned groups were present on Facebook in the form of hundreds of pages, groups and individual user profiles.

If the PTI government has decided to take a more proactive approach in curbing extremist narratives, it must first define the parameters of what can be a loaded term. Many politicians and rights activists were opposed tooth and nail to the passage of the cybercrime bill (in its final form), apprehending that it would be liberally and arbitrarily applied to silence dissent and diversity of political opinion. Their fears may have not been misplaced.

According to Twitter’s biannual report, between January and June 2018, the government, headed by the PML-N at the time, reported an unprecedented 3,004 profiles to the social networking site for allegedly “inciting violence” and “spreading hate material” and sent requests seeking the removal of 243 accounts.

Can one hope that this standard was applied to clamp down on violent extremism rather than inconvenient political commentary? In any case, due process must be followed; there must be no midnight knocks and no shady abductions.

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