ExclusiveHuman Rights

Growing hatred against minorities pushing them away from online spaces

Asma Ghani

“I was threatened to be implicated under ‘blasphemy law’ because I was an outspoken critic of unfair behaviours and policies against Christian community. Even if I raise my voice against social injustice, they say I am defaming their religion,” says N Masih *, a 25-year-old resident of Rawalpindi.

Cases of implicating the Christian community under blasphemy charge prompted N Masih * to raise voice for his community and defend their innocence.

Until one day, he came across a local cleric allegedly speaking against Christianity and its followers on a digital media platform so he responded to the hatred being incited against his community.

The response got him message after message of Christian ‘slur and threats’.

He was asked to stop posting on religious and social issues or else he will be charged under 295-C of PPC that is equivalent to life threats.

Undeterred by the threats, he continued posting on his social media accounts until his father begged him to quit social media. “I didn’t want my only son to be beaten to death by a violent mob or my daughters to be dragged,” Masih’s father said.

“The failure of authorities to curb the spread of online hate not only affects their equal participation in society but often leads to violent attacks on them” CSJ ED Peter Jacob

 

For the sake of his family’s security and fears of his future, he stifled his passion to speak up for his community.

N Masih* ordeal is not an uncommon one as the Community is not the only victim of online hate speech, but all minorities in the country ‘face hate speech’ targeting their religious identities, faiths, personalities and teachings.

Rawalpindi Tops

A recent study that monitored approximately 309,000 twitter accounts revealed that there were some 82,364 [27 per cent] accounts found ‘spreading hate against the religious minorities’.

The study conducted by Bytes for All (B4A) found that extremely derogatory expressions were used to express hate for people belonging to religious minorities, particularly Christians.

It recorded a total of 116 hate messages in 50 days of Facebook monitoring, of which polytheism accusations with regards to Christmas greetings were 13.4 per cent.

Rawalpindi is producing majority hate speech in online spaces. Karachi is the second largest location followed by Peshawar, Lahore, Multan, Faisalabad and Quetta.

The Human Rights Watch (HRW), in its annual World Report-2021, pointed out that the government did not amend or repeal blasphemy law provisions that have provided a pretext for violence against religious minorities and have left them vulnerable to arbitrary arrest and prosecution.

 

A Weapon of Violence

Unfortunately, hate speech against minorities has become a normal speech in Pakistan, said Centre for Social Justice Executive Director Peter Jacob.

“It is so embedded in social communications and pervasive in our society. We don’t realize in our daily lives that our remarks are hateful towards others living around us,” Jacob added.

Taking Turkish historical TV drama Ertugrul Ghazi as an example, he said it reinforces the message of hate in online spaces.

While the drama glorifies Muslims, scenes of breaking the cross and beheadings in Christian villages give the impression that killing of Christians and desecration of their religious symbols is permissible, he added.

Online hate speech against minorities plays a key role in reinforcing stereotypes and spreading myths about them, the right activist maintained.

The failure of authorities to curb the spread of online hate not only affects their equal participation in society but often leads to violent attacks on them.

According to the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), since 1987s, as many as 78 persons had been killed extra-judicially after allegations related to blasphemy and apostasy, 42 of whom were Muslims, 23 Christians, nine Ahmadis, two Hindus and two persons whose religious identity was unknown.

Jacob believes that there is a pattern in such cases of incitement to violence, accusations of committing a religious insult is a weapon for violent crimes, and its use is endemic.

“The web evaluation by the anti-blasphemy cell of the Religious ministry keeps receiving complaints about objectionable material and blasphemous content that non-Muslims or Muslims from minority sects post, but complaints from minorities about hate speech against them are almost negligent” Religious ministry’s Web Evaluation Cell AD Umar Butt

There is usually a personal motive involved in such cases, he asserts. Either the perpetrators want to grab their land or it is organized by some religio-political parties.

The perpetrators concoct a story, use social media to proliferate hate, and take cases to the courts, he explained.

“One incitement leads to blasphemy charges that further lead to violence and social media has only helped spread such messages and fan the fire,” the rights activist lamented.

He said there are cases in which mobile messages were used for leveling blasphemy charges, adding that even illiterate people who can’t draft English text were implicated in such cases.

“The investigation is biased, the truth is never fully revealed and the perpetrators are seldom punished,” he informed.

In the past couple of months, three incidents of violence occurred in Karachi, Lahore and Faisalabad against Christian nurses, in which blasphemy charges were levelled and now a proscribed right-wing religious party also issued statements against the victims.

To No Avail

Pakistan is bound by national laws as well as international agreements to guarantee freedom of religion and protection from persecution whether offline or online.

On June 19, 2014, a three-member Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice Tassadaq Hussain Jillani delivered a landmark verdict regarding the protection and enforcement of minorities’ rights.

The apex court directed the government to “take appropriate steps to ensure that hate speeches on social media are discouraged and the delinquents are brought to justice”.

It also asked to constitute a national council for minorities’ rights to monitor the practical realization of the rights and safeguards provided to the minorities under the Constitution and law.

However, despite the passage of seven years, the successive governments failed to constitute an independent council through a parliament law for minorities as directed by the apex court.

“A recent study that monitored approximately 309,000 twitter accounts revealed that there were some 82,364 [27 per cent] accounts found spreading hate against religious minorities” Bytes for All (B4A)

There is a deliberate negligence on part of the successive governments when it comes to minority rights, regrets Jacob.

“The government satisfied itself by setting up a toothless minorities’ commission with no budget, no staff and no law,” he added.

Often the cyber-crime wing of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) registers cases against hate speech, but there’s hardly any implementation of the laws, he lamented.

There are regulatory bodies of mainstream and social media, but they are mostly busy censoring and manipulating political content, he added.

When the concerned authorities were informed about the organized hateful trends and demanded action, officials asked for forgiveness for not being able to take action against them because of their enormous following and influence not only among seminary students but in public too, he said.

Mostly, the cases of online hate speech are not reported for fear of reprisal and those reported rarely action is taken against the conspirators.

People usually avoid indulging in court cases and block their followers or avoid using social media.

Mary James Gill, ex-member of Punjab Assembly faced threats when she was working to amend family law.

Consequently, she had to restrict her movement and quit social media for months. She still faces hateful remarks and criticism when she raises her voice against gender issues, only-Christian-sweeper policies and campaigns for decent employment opportunities for minorities.

She also believes that the best way to avoid online hate is to block such people or have a break because this system cannot deliver justice to our community.

“Nothing happens even in crimes that have severe punishments. People have ‘lost confidence in the justice system’,” she added.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony, however, believes hate speech against non-Muslim minorities is almost zero in Pakistan.

The web evaluation/anti-blasphemy cell of the ministry keeps receiving complaints about objectionable material and blasphemous content that non-Muslims or Muslims from minority sects post, Umar Butt, assistant director of the cell said.

But complaints from minorities about hate speech against them are almost negligent.

Out of 56,000 links on social media against which complaints were received, 28,000 found blasphemous, carrying sectarian hate speech, inappropriate, immoral and pornographic content, he informed, and none were against minorities.

Pakistan Telecommunication Authority was informed accordingly to take appropriate action, he said.

But majority of the accounts posting indecent material against Islamic and cultural values operating from other countries due to which no action can be taken against the operators but those operating in Pakistan face charges under cybercrime laws, he added.

Commissions for minorities were constituted for 27 years but no government worked on legislation to form an independent commission, said Chela Ram Kewlani, Chairman of National Commission for Minorities.

For the first time, a bill has been drafted to establish a statutory body for minorities, he said adding that the draft being reviewed by the law ministry is expected to be tabled in the parliament soon.

The new commission, he said, formed through legislation will have the powers to take action against hate speech and other complaints independently.

But until then, N* thinks he will have to “live like a third class citizen and feign that minorities are free”.

*Name has been changed to protect survivor’s identity.

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