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Study highlights online harassment of Pakistani minorities

Hate speech spreads as media face threats, abuse, trolling, hacking, blocking and charges of treason

Study highlights online harassment of Pakistani minorities

Pedestrians walk over a poster of French President Emmanuel Macron in Peshawar on Oct. 29 following Macron's comments about the Prophet Muhammad caricatures. (Photo: AFP)

Media groups in Pakistan have voiced concerns about hostility to religious minorities on social media and closing spaces for dissent online.

The findings were shared in a report titled “Closing Spaces: Coercive Cyber Regulations Impede Online Journalism and Free Speech in Pakistan” issued by Freedom Network to mark International Internet Day on Oct. 29.

The report said that online news media platforms reported facing hostility and organized targeting for their content related to religion, religious minorities and human rights. They face threats, abuse, trolling, hacking, blocking and charges of treason from various threat actors including individuals, political parties, religious groups, unknown organized groups and even official sources.

“Hate speech against religious minorities on social media and their online harassment were prevalent in 2020. Religious minorities, security agencies, human rights, gender, politics and development were identified as the main discussion themes online that elicited the most hostile reactions from detractors online,” the report stated.

Concerns about misinformation, disinformation and fake news grew as political polarization was encouraged by the ruling party and Prime Minister Imran Khan himself, it claimed.

Misinformation complaints spread principally through social media platforms. Pakistan experienced several setbacks in enforcement of freedom of expression and right to information online, the report stated.

“It is troubling to note that the accumulative effect of the slide in enforcement of digital rights is contributing to a general closing of online spaces. The biggest casualty is online free speech, and online journalism in particular is being impeded in by coercive cyber regulations,” said Iqbal Khattak, executive director of Freedom Network.

The report said the media legal context of Pakistan during 2020 was characterized by an aggressive federal government seeking to extend and expand its authority to over-regulate the media sector and to redefine the boundaries of free speech for journalists, online citizens, opposition political parties and civil society movements.

“There was an increased reliance on the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) to encourage censorship. The cybercrime law was repeatedly invoked against journalists and opinion makers for exercising freedom of expression and social media activism,” it stated.

The executive-controlled internet regulator Pakistan Telecommunication Authority used its unchecked powers to censor materials on the internet and this summer unleashed another controversy by requiring registration of virtual private networks (VPNs).”

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Last month more than 150 female journalists signed a petition raising the alarm about “vile and vicious attacks” by people affiliated to the government, political parties and their social media wings.

Father Qaiser Feroz, who runs a Facebook page for Radio Veritas Asia Urdu Service with 8,522 followers, focuses only on good news for social media.

“We try to give a positive message to strengthen faith and promote peace. Most of our listeners are Muslims who appreciate the RVA content focusing on gospel reflection, information and news. Our editorial policies restrict any hate material,” he told UCA News.

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