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February 9, 2017

Hate speech is not free speech


February 9, 2017

Freedom of speech is an article of faith for me, and is a touchstone of all freedoms – without violating the civil and human rights of others. Since hate speech and incitement to violence is on the rise and is being backed by fascist and outlawed terrorist groups, even the right to life is in jeopardy – especially of those who stand for the rights of others. The situation calls for urgent attention by all state institutions, including parliament, judiciary, all civil and military authorities and the media.

Freedom of speech has been the most contested right in the last few centuries and has been – and is being – defended by all those who believe in democracy, rule of law and human freedom. It is now enshrined in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Almost all constitutions in various democracies include this right as a pivot of their democratic distinction. But, invariably all democratic constitutions and laws have placed some genuine limits and restrictions to restrain the misuse of this freedom so as to save the rights of others and prohibit hate speech that incites others to act violently against an individual or a group. Nowhere is hate speech allowed to incite people to violence on ideological, political, religious, ethnic and sexual orientation grounds. There are libel laws and various monitoring agencies, and judiciary and executive tools to stop hate speech and prohibit incitement to violence.

But what is hate speech? According to Wikipedia, hate speech is “speech which attacks a person or group on the basis of attributes such as gender,      ethnic origin, religion, race, disability, or sexual orientation”. Hate speech, in the laws of various countries, “is described as speech, gesture or conduct, writing, or display which is forbidden because it incites violence or prejudicial action against or by a protected group or individual on the basis of their membership to the group, or because it disparages or intimidates a protected group or individual on the basis of their membership to the group”.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says: “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law”. In the US constitution, the framers had thought over certain limits on free speech. In one case, Justice Frank Murphy observed: “There are certain well-defined and limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise a Constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libellous and the insulting or ‘fighting’ words – those which by their very utterances inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace”.

The US Supreme Court ruled in Brandenburg v Ohio that: “The constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a state to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force, or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action”.

Given the widespread hate online, efforts are being made to somehow restrict it. In 2016, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter agreed to an EU Code of Conduct obligating them to review the “majority of valid notifications for removal of illegal hate speech” posted on their services within 24 hours. In Pakistan, a law was passed to check cyber crime, but there is no effective mechanism in place to justifiably prohibit hate, including blasphemous material. Hate speech that is grounded in sectarianism, xenophobia and provokes violent extremism and intolerance is vicious and dangerous. Unfortunately, even false allegations of blasphemy provoke such a hysterical reaction that, instead of taking a lawful course, zealots lynch the alleged culprit; and often innocent people are subjected to mob justice without any adjudication.

We can see the most vicious and provocative hate speech on some television talk shows. Never in the history of Pakistan’s media’s have broadcasters and anchors stooped as low as is being witnessed these days. And it is just not a cheap tactic to get ratings. It is also being done to settle scores with competing media houses and eminent journalists. Allegations of blasphemy, immorality and un-patriotism are being levelled to incite violence and endanger the life of so many media-persons, including this scribe.

The Pakistan Broadcasters Association has taken serious notice of this flagrant violation of the ethical code. Pemra rightly moved to prohibit Amir Liaquat of Bol TV from endangering the lives of journalists, but its restraining order was defied and the anchor continued to exploit a stay order to further fuel hatred against other journalists. This writer’s own life is in danger.

Responding to this grave situation, leading intellectuals, academics, professionals, journalists, lawyers, civil society activists and political workers have started a signature campaign on an open petition addressed to all state authorities. They have resolved to approach the heads of all state institutions regarding their concerns and have decided to pursue their demands to make the state and its people safe and secure. They are doing this to usher in a new era of prosperity, enlightenment and human security, and to ensure the survival of the republic as a civilised and strong nation-state at peace with itself and with its neighbours.

The petitioners have expressed their concerns in the following terms: there is a “rising tide of intolerance, hate speech, violent extremism, apostatising of opponents, sectarian hatred and killings, discrimination against women and minorities; all-round threats to civil and human rights activists from both state and non-state actors; threats to and misuse of freedom of expression; hegemony of religious extremist ideologies; prevalence of anti-national and Daesh type of extremist narratives; enforced ‘disappearance’ of citizens; marginalisation of civil society and intimidation of enlightened sections of society at the hands of fascist gangs unleashed on the streets of Pakistan while law-enforcement agencies watch helplessly”.

The petition further says that there is a “half-hearted and selective implementation of the National Action Plan; lack of parliamentary control over foreign and security policies and absence of its oversight over security agencies; continuing multiple proxy wars among the neighbouring countries serving the interests of disparate proxies and terrorist outfits; bilateral tensions on our borders; unviable security policies undermining our standing in the comity of nations and our official standpoint”.

They have vowed to purse and demand from all state authorities the following: all state authorities – governments, legislative assemblies and the Senate, armed forces, law-enforcement authorities, intelligence agencies and judiciary – fulfil their constitutional and legal obligations in accordance with their constitutional mandate to curb hate speech, intolerance, the apostatising of intellectually and religiously differing standpoints, sectarian hatred and killings, violations of civil and human rights, violent extremist ideologies, terrorism of all hues and on any pretext, suppression of the civil society, the witch-hunt of the intelligentsia and lawlessness of fascist gangs and proscribed organisations.

The petition also demands full implementation of the National Action Plan – especially against banned extremist outfits and the ‘good Taliban’, violent extremist ideologies and anti-national Daesh type narratives and poisonous and hateful material/curricula/broadcast. There is also a demand for the creation of an authoritative National Security and National Action Plan Implementation Committee of parliament to whom all state authorities should be answerable. Furthermore, the petitioners demand parliamentary oversight over and accountability of all security agencies; an end to proxy wars and resumption of dialogue for cooperative neighbourly relations; the adoption of foreign and security policies that are commensurate with peoples’ interests and national resources to ensure peace and national integrity and elimination of terrorism/subversion within and by all states in the region.

Will anybody listen and stop this hate-mongering and these fascist gangs from silencing the voices of sanity?

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @ImtiazAlamSAFMA


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