LAHORE: Journalists and rights activists called for an urgent need to check organised trolling which was pointed out as an ugly activity on social media, gaining ground in the absence of effective laws to check the practice.
There were two sessions on Onslaught on civil society in South Asia on the 2nd day of the Asma Jahangir Conference, one on Regulating social media: Freedom, but under what rules? and the other on Media under siege in India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
The two people who laid special emphasis on an end to trolling were Afzal Butt, President Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), and Nighat Dad, Executive Director of Digital Rights Foundation. Nighat Dad said unless political parties do not regulate themselves and declare their authentic accounts, trolling could not be checked. “Governments forget demands of civil society organisations once they come to power. We need inclusive participation and conversation. Also, a law for data protection,” she added.
Afzal Butt said that announced censorship was better than the unannounced censorship of today. “Four to five weapons are used against journalists. They are below the belt accusations like abduction of a woman and gambling so that colleagues and family do not stand with that person. Whoever dares to be brave is labelled a traitor. Blasphemy is also a tool, trolling is another while journalists are barred from the screen which hits them financially,” he added.
Matiullah Jan, a journalist, called for strong defamation laws. The parliament, he said, has failed to assert its right to debate. “There is a lack of debate. Laws are selectively enforced.” He suggested civil society find out through search which news media organisations reported truthfully. “A lot has been said about hate speech. There is a need to avoid objectionable statements as well,” he said.
Dr Afnan Ullah Khan, a senator and member of Senate Standing Committee on IT & Telecommunication, said the government was working on data protection law and it was very important to hold dialogue between the people and the government.
Lawyer Iman Mazari Haazir gave a list of violations of law and how the PECA law was made more draconian. David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, speaking on the occasion virtually, said Asma was a hero because of the rule of law she stood for. “States very often over-regulate with the best of intent. This is taking a toll particularly on the marginalized,” he said.
Mahsa Alimardani, a researcher from Iran, in her virtual address, said Asma Jahangir was a Special Rapporteur to Iran. She talked about US sanction on Internet services and said financial sanctions still existed on Iran which needed to be lifted. “We really need Pakistan’s voice in the UN Council,” she said.
In the next session on civil society, journalist Hamid Mir counted journalists who had been barred from TV. Hamid himself was put off-air for 9 months in 2021. This year some other journalists have been banned. “I am against the ban whether it is on Imran Riaz, Arshad Sharif or Sabir Shakir. I condemn all cases against them,” he said.
“I am for freedom of expression. All of us are here due to Asma’s struggle for human rights.” He recalled how Steve Butler was blacklisted for criticising the government in 2019, how he was sent back last year when he arrived for the conference. “This year too he was detained at the airport but then allowed to join the conference. PM Shehbaz Sharif sent a message saying sorry for the inconvenience,” he added.
Hamid Mir contested how could Manzoor Pashteen be barred from television. “If Pashteen is a terrorist, then you are all terrorists. A terrorist is one who subverts the Constitution,” he maintained.
There was a big applause from the audience at this. “Some state institutions are spreading fake news to hurt media organisations. Pakistan’s rating has dropped on the Press Freedom Index. The country has reached 145 on the index while no killer of journalists has been arrested,” he pointed out.
Hamid said he had heard talk about martial law very recently and warned Pakistan would suffer badly if it was imposed. “In East Pakistan, General Omar used to give money to political parties. Some draconian laws have been enforced by democratic governments. Laws such as the PECA Ordinance should come to an end,” he demanded.
Steve Butler thanked the conference organisers for their work. He said his organisation, Committee to Protect Journalists, had for years sent delegations to Pakistan but when he was immediately turned back in 2019, the healthy process was brought to an end. “We are not for or against any government. We are for journalists. Pakistan is not unique in any way. Over 630 assaults were made on journalists in a year in the US. In India, the press is under tremendous pressure,” he said.
Indian journalist Malini Subramaniam talked about the challenges of hatred spewed against minority communities in India, journalists tried and haunted for reporting violations of minorities’ rights. She talked about Article 19 (2) under which they book journalists. “Muhammad Zubair, a journalist who set up a fact-finding website to monitor hate speeches, was implicated in several cases. Today he is out on bail.” She shed light on how the government uses all means to prevent journalists and CSOs from working. Daniel Bustard, Asia Pacific Director Reporter without Borders, said, “We have developed five indicators in which the media can flourish.”
He called for end to political interference in the media and pointed out that the economic condition of journalists was very bad. “On the one hand there is leverage between media houses and political parties, on the other hand journalists are paid very poor wages, at times the wages are withheld,” he said.
Dilrukhshi, who spoke virtually, said since the uprising in Sri Lanka in April this year, 3,800 people had been arrested for protests. “Harassment continues. The global condemnation hasn’t made much difference here. How can the state take your life for speaking the truth? Who prevents us from telling these stories is something we should discuss,” she said.
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