The definition of hate speech is contested and controversial, especially in relation to trampling on free speech. What is important is to consider the context of each society’s dynamics, and observe the dangers different types of speech can pose to be able to draw lines between hate speech and free speech. However, in our context, the difficulty that arises is the litmus test of how effective the rule of law is, and how much impunity those indulging in hate speech are able to be protected by.
In this context, and in light of the latest effort by the National Counter Terrorism Authority (Nacta) to introduce a smartphone application to report hate speech, it is important to consider the hate speech laws here, explore the history of their use, evaluate the problems with them, and then conclude on the effectiveness, if any, of such an app for the public.
Laws relating to hate speech exist in Section 505 (2) of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) that makes creating or promoting “feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities” punishable. Section 8 of the Anti-Terrorism Act prohibits acts intended or likely to stir up sectarian hatred through “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour” including possession, display, publication, and distribution of such material in recorded, visual image, or sound form.
Section 11 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act also deals with hate speech, prohibiting the preparation or dissemination of information that “advances or is likely to advance interfaith, sectarian or racial hatred”.
All of these laws make the offence of hate speech punishable with imprisonment of up to seven years, or fine, or both in case of conviction. Blasphemy-related laws such as Section 295 (b) and (c) of the PPC can also be considered hate speech laws, though Section 295 (c) carries the punishment of death penalty.
Hate speech was one of the main action points of the National Action Plan formulated after the APS Peshawar tragedy in 2014. Point 5 resolved for “strict action against the literature, newspapers and magazines promoting hatred, extremism, sectarianism, and intolerance”. Under this, the interior ministry last March reported to have arrested 19,289 individuals, sealed 70 shops, and confiscated 5,141 items over hate speech and extremist literature.
However, a Dawn investigation in 2017 revealed that 41 of Pakistan’s 64 banned organisations were active on Facebook “in the form of hundreds of pages, groups and individual user profiles”, including several sectarian outfits. This is all the more concerning, and raises flags over the state’s intent, when contrasted with the government’s crackdown on anti-Taliban progressive Facebook pages such as Roshni, Taliban are Zaliman, Laal, etc.
There are several ways in which the current hate speech laws in Pakistan are problematic.
Firstly, some have pointed out the issue of constituting religious speech as hate speech, especially in the case of expression of belief by members of different sects that disagree over interpretation of scripture. This applies especially because of laws that criminalise the “likelihood of advancing racial, sectarian or religious hatred”, where intent is not always considered.
Secondly, these laws can be abused by individuals to settle personal enmities, or in order to gain access to resources. This is especially salient in cases of allegations of hate speech and blasphemy against religious minorities. Take the case of the Ahmadi community; there are laws that criminalise certain aspects of their practices, in light of which citizens and even politicians express hate speech with impunity. Further, accusing someone of belonging to this community has also become a form of hate speech which is used to incite violence against individuals, or even groups as attempted by the TLYRA against the government.
In light of these concerns, Nacta’s introduction of a smartphone app seems out of place. First, how many citizens actually have access to smartphones and mobile internet? According to statistics, only 27 per cent of the population uses a smartphone.
Second, the state must stop passing on its responsibility on to citizens. We have already seen horrific cases of mob lynching in the case of the innocent Mashal Khan and others.
Third, the application neither functions in a transparent manner, and its claim of anonymous reporting is dubious as it requires the name and contact details of the user. Who is to guarantee the security of the complainant and accused in an environment where the FIA was recently involved in the torture of a Christian man who had been accused, and his cousin.
Structural changes in the working of the legal system, implementation of the rule of law, ending impunity of extremist groups, protection of minorities, and punishment of false accusers will lead to solving the menace of hate speech in Pakistan, not a smartphone application.