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February 22, 2019

Online hate

Opinion

February 22, 2019

Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has successfully concluded his visit to Pakistan. Pakistan has always enjoyed cordial relations with Saudi Arabia. The first foreign visit of Imran Khan after taking oath as prime minister of Pakistan was Saudi Arabia. Similarly, the Saudi crown prince also selected Pakistan for his first formal foreign tour.

Recently, a federal minister announced a massive crackdown against the misuse of social media. A journalist has also recently been booked in connection with his controversial tweets. Many critics are seeing such developments as an attack on the freedom of expression. In my view, freedom of expression and disseminating hate material on the internet must be distinguished as two separate entities.

In a column published last year in these pages, I had described how beneficial social media could be, if used positively in a constructive manner. The huge popularity of the internet is, no doubt, the most defining moment in human history. In today’s digital era, various social media tools, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and WhatsApp, are proving themselves to be most powerful tools to play a prominent role in resulting social change.

Unfortunately, social media is also acting like a dangerous weapon for some criminal-minded people to spew hate speech and extremist ideologies. That’s why many analysts are suggesting 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.

Various governments are adopting different strategies in order to regulate social media in their respected countries. In this regard, public pressure on social media giants like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is also intensifying day by day. Some are of the view that there must be non-commercial ownership model of social media, either on a non-profit basis or some form of public ownership.

The situation in our country is also very disturbing, where the misuse of social media is on rise. The presence of hate material and baseless propaganda against vulnerable communities is particularly alarming for all who want to positively utilise social media.

A few years ago, during my hearings in the Supreme Court for the protection of minorities’ rights in Pakistan, I had informed the then CJ, Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani, that there was an immediate need to delete all hate material in the country. To formalise the National Action Plan to curb terrorism, the previous government had also announced to establish a working group, led by the then interior minister Chaudhry Nisar, for taking measures against abuse of the internet and social media promoting hatred, extremism, sectarianism and intolerance.

At that time, I had suggested in a column that a nationwide awareness campaign is required to highlight the importance of using social media for the betterment of society. I believe that instead of restricting social media by force, we must focus on ensuring positive use of the internet. The internet regulation strategies of different countries, such as Turkey, China and Iran, could also be analysed.

Today, when Prime Minister Imran Khan is retaining the interior ministry portfolio for himself, I, once again, would like to emphasise that the government must convince social media companies to establish local branch offices in Pakistan. Currently, these companies are based outside Pakistan and our local rules and regulations are not applicable to them.

Following the biometric verification of all SIMs , we must devise a mechanism whereby internet users will only be able to use social media after registering their mobile numbers. A biometric-verified mobile number will not only ensure the constructive role of social media but the internet user too will have a fear of being caught for abusing regulations. Moreover, this will also prevent various social evils related to online harassment and hate crimes.

It is quite unfortunate that we have limited the subject of Ethics to Non-Muslim students. In my views, the federal and all provincial governments must declare this subject compulsory for all students in all educational institutions throughout the country. We must play our due role to protect innocent people against the harms of online hate campaigns.

The writer is a member of the NationalAssembly and patron-in-chief of the

Pakistan Hindu Council.

Twitter: @RVankwani

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