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February 15, 2019

Social media and free speech

February 15, 2019

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.

While international human rights law requires states to prohibit the most severe forms of “hate speech”, censorship is rarely an effective means of tackling its root-causes. Broadly framed hate speech laws are also frequently misused to target opposing political views, narratives and dissenting expression.

Governments should engage in a range of law and policy measures to counter hate speech with more speech, seeking to maximise inclusivity, diversity and pluralism in public discourse. That means clearly defining the circumstances in which certain types of hate speech can or must be limited, and ensuring those measures are only used exceptionally, and as a last resort.

Hate speech covers many forms of expressions which spread, incite, promote or justify hatred, violence and discrimination against a person or community on the basis of religion, race, nationality, ethnicity and gender. If left unaddressed, it can lead to violence and conflict on a wider scale. In this sense, hate speech is an extreme form of intolerance which contributes to hate crime.

But this free speech and freedom of expression is under attack throughout the world. Governments around the world, whether democratic or authoritarian, have been imposing direct and indirect restrictions on free speech and freedom of expression. Governments are intervening directly to criminalise dissent through regulations and new laws.

Indirect censorship has been imposed through the social media giants – Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube. Governments have been putting pressure on these social media giants to censor content on grounds of national security. Both governments and the board of directors of these corporations now decide what is good or harmful for us.

Social media has been under tight scrutiny since the Arab uprisings commonly known as the Arab Spring. The Arab masses had at the time expressed themselves through social media because of tight government control and censorship over the print and electronic media. Social media did help Arab activists in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq and other countries to organise protests and spread their message across the world.

It took governments little time to realise the potential power of social media to challenge state-imposed ideologies and narratives. So they started to impose censorship and regulations to control it. Governments are also using the same social media platforms and tools to intimidate, monitor and identify those activists that pose a challenge to them.

The PTI government seems to want to impose more regulations and censorship on social media. There already exists self-censorship on electronic and print media.

The stated reason for regulating social media is to control the hate speech on social media. The PTI government also wants bring the social, digital, print and electronic media under the proposed Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority to better control, monitor and regulate all forms of media.

No proper discussion and public debate has taken place on this proposed new media regulatory authority. Media organisations and journalist bodies have already raised serious concerns and objections on the proposed regulatory authority. The government should not take a unilateral decision on this issue. There needs to be proper debate and discussion both inside and outside parliament before such new authority is promulgated.

The government says it is preparing to launch a crackdown against hate speech on social media. There are concerns and worries about this planned crackdown, which should not be used to repress dissent or dominate the political narrative.

There is no doubt that Pakistan needs measures to address the menace of hate speech. But any restrictions on hate speech should not be misused to silence critical voices and suppress criticism of government policies.

The problem with the PTI government’s approach on the issue of free speech, media freedoms and hate speech is that it is looking it through the lenses of national security.

We have a serious problem here. Politicians and political parties can become targets of hate speech without any check. The idea is that no one should be targeted on the basis of religion beliefs, ethnicity, political views, ideas and race. A rational approach is needed to address this issue.

Criminal prohibition is necessary when hate speech publicly incites violence against individuals or communities. At the same time, criminal sanctions should be used as a measure of last resort and, all along, a balance must be kept between fighting hate speech and safeguarding freedom of speech.

The writer is a freelance journalist.