Media and hate speech

August 16, 2015

A study mapping the impact of hate speech on the mindset and perception of Pakistani youth

Media and hate speech

I found many biases and misleading sentences based on prejudice in the name of religion, sect, language, culture and gender when I did content analysis of school textbooks of Pakistan published under the curriculums of 2002 and 2006. I also carried out two separate studies in the years 2010 and 2014 respectively. In both studies, I had to read textbooks of five subjects: Urdu, English, History/Social Studies/Pakistan studies, Islamiat, and Ethics (books for non-Muslim Pakistanis published under the 2009 education policy).

Textbooks prepared under the 2006 curriculum were published quite late till 2011. In many ways, these books were comparatively better than the textbooks published under the 2002 curriculum. But hate speech and misleading pictures remain part of public school textbooks even today.

As I went through 12 major policy documents related to education since 1947 published by the government of Pakistan, including the last education policy (Education Policy 2009), I found linkages of hate and biases between the policy and the end product -- textbooks.

Keeping this background in mind, I recently read a report titled "Hate Speech on Mass and Social Media in Pakistan 2015" that "aims to explain and analyse anonymous and confidential information on youth experiences and perceptions with regards to hate speech in local media." This study relates to experiences about both social and mainstream print and electronic media. Due to the wider nature of this project, it is important to understand the way hate speech is spread and perceived, since it is one of the drivers of extremist rhetoric in the country, especially when a majority of youth are exposed to the often unsubstantiated opinion that exists within the country.

"Youth bulge" is a latest term in Pakistan. Emphasising on youth is common in politics too yet the multi-million question is how to study trends, shades and priorities of Pakistani young people. Are they familiar with the concept of hate speech? Are they aware of any legislation that exists regarding hate speech in Pakistan? Can they identify different shades of hate speech -- urban, cultural, ethnic, religious, sub-religious or sectarian etc?

A Gujranwala-based civil society organisation, Bargad, carried out the study in collaboration with the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) as part of their efforts to tackle extremism in Pakistan. The study should be considered as a beginning of efforts to understand youth. It covers literate youth studying in fourteen public and private Pakistani universities across the Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Azad Jammu and Kashmir. It includes three private and 11 public universities. Although the sample is not very large but one can have an idea what is cooking up in the minds of future planners.

As Bargad has presence in almost all public and private universities, it must expand the study, with the help of HEC, to Gilgit Baltistan, Sindh, and Balochistan along with private universities so that Pakistanis should know about the ground realities.

Some of the 18 questions asked were: Are you familiar with the concept of hate speech? Have you ever encountered hate speech on either social or mainstream media? For what reason do you believe you were the target? Are you aware of any legislation that exists regarding hate speech in Pakistan? What is the age group most responsible for hate speech on traditional media?

The results are: 91.2 per cent students said they were familiar with the concept of hate speech. 51.2 per cent viewed that they have been the target of hate speech. 15.2 per cent believed that they were the victims of hate speech due to their religion. The same number said this about ethnicity and language, while 4 per cent students said they were victimised for their gender. 20.8 per cent believed that they have been targeted for their opinions. 34.4 per cent said they encountered hate speech on social or mainstream print and online media. 52 per cent said they did not face hate speech and 13.6 per cent were unsure. 27.2 per cent said they faced hate speech from their friends and peers while 16 per cent experienced it within family and 28 per cent from superiors. 59.2 per cent believed that hate speech is more prevalent on social media than other forums. 45.7 per cent believed the 21-30 year old age group to be the most responsible for hate speech on social media. 81.7 per cent students claimed to not be aware of any laws regarding hate speech that exist in Pakistan.

I will reserve my detailed analysis for the next article but the above stated results are enough to deconstruct some prevalent myths regarding the root-causes of extremism in Pakistan, especially with reference to youth. Although more than 50 per cent students said they have been the target of hate speech, the percentage of victims of hate speech due to religion and ethnicity, including languages, is 15.2 per cent each. The 20.8 per cent students who believed that have been targeted for their opinions remind us the importance of academic freedom which is absent in our higher education institutions.

In the light of this result, we will have to address the issue of hate speech not only with respect to religion and sect but also with respect to language and ethnicity.

The issue of social media is also very complex. Almost 60 per cent students believed that hate speech is more prevalent on social media. On the contrary, the trend to take stories from social media is increasing day by day in the print and electronic media. Are we ready to map the fatal impacts of this new editor-less media?

The report rightly recommends tighter legislation regarding definitions and designations of hate speech. It also recommends that children should be taught more about the nature of hate speech and how to identify it from a young age. This would involve sections on hate speech and its consequences in the educational curriculum as well as teaching children how to differentiate between legitimate criticism and hate speech. Schoolteachers and journalists always play an important role in this regard but both are absent from the debate of tackling extremism.

(To be concluded)

Media and hate speech