The need for a crackdown on hate material on social media is felt in Pakistan whenever national institutions and religious and interfaith harmony are targeted. It becomes a challenge for law enforcing agencies to maintain peace in Muharram. As international forces have intensified their efforts to create sectarian strife in Pakistan, an effective mechanism is needed to curb online religious hatred to save the country from chaos.
Recently, Minister for Religious Affairs Noorul Haq Qadri said that female employees of Israel’s secret agency are leading a campaign against the dignity of sacred personalities of Islam to fan sectarianism in Pakistan. Weeks ago, a religious leader of Lahore was booked for hate speech and objectionable remarks. Large rallies were held in the whole country for and against him. When the government announced a crackdown on social media to deter content against national institutions and religious harmony, it prompted accusations of curbing freedom of expression and victimizing political activists. In the absence of effective measures, attacks on national institutions have intensified on social media. The judiciary and the army, which cannot be criticized even in the parliament, are targeted on social media without any fear. A smear campaign is launched against national institutions on every event in the Middle East, especially in Saudi Arabia and Iran. Even journalists feel free to create religious controversies. There is no doubt that social media is beneficial, if used positively. The internet has revolutionized lives. In today’s digital era, social media has become the most powerful tool for change. However, it is also being used by criminal-minded people to promote hate and extremist ideologies. Many analysts suggest that there is a direct link between social media and hate crimes. According to a research report, social media has all the potential to act as a propagation tool between online hate speech and real-life violent crime.
When the government announced action against elements using social media to propagate extremist narrative, rights activists and opposition parties expressed serious reservations over the plan. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said, “We strongly feel the need to equip human rights defenders with measures to use social media apps safely and productively amid growing fears of curbs on social media – especially on social media activists and journalists who have spoken out on subjects that receive little, if any, space in the mainstream media. The state must pay heed to the sheer number of human rights defenders across the country, who rely on social media apps for news, information on human rights violations, and calls to mobilize around rights-based issues – especially in many areas where social media apps are the only secure means of communication. The fundamental right to information is closely linked with ways of exercising freedom of expression, movement and assembly – all of which are critical to human rights work in Pakistan.”
Experts say the crackdown on extremist narrative on social media 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, Prime Minister 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”. 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. As the PTI has come to power, it can demonstrate that these were not merely empty gestures made only to advance its own cause.
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. According to a study, 41 banned groups are active on social media in the form of hundreds of pages, groups and individual user profiles. Many governments in the world have adopted strategies to regulate social media. The situation in Pakistan is very disturbing. The presence of hate material and baseless propaganda against vulnerable communities is particularly alarming. A nationwide awareness campaign is required to highlight the importance of using social media for the betterment of society. Instead of restricting social media by force, positive use of the internet must be encouraged. The internet regulation strategies of different countries, such as Turkey, China and Iran, could also be analysed to make the crackdown effective.
Experts say if the government has decided to take a more proactive approach in curbing extremist narratives, it must first define the parameters. Many political and rights activists opposed the Cybercrime Bill, apprehending that it would be liberally and arbitrarily applied to silence dissent and diversity of political opinion. They say the crackdown on social media in the name of hate speech is an old trick to silence the critics of government policies. However, it is a fact that social media cannot be controlled, like electronic media. It needs different strategies. It is hoped that the law will be applied to clamp down on violent extremism, rather than political opponents.