When the last census was held in Pakistan in 2017 after almost two decades, one of the surprise findings was that the ratio of non-Muslims in Pakistan had declined. That religious minorities are not treated well in Pakistan and live under constant fear of attacks on them and their places of worship is well documented. One of the aspects of this ill-treatment of minorities is that the mainstream media does not pay much attention to the issues minorities face in Pakistan. To highlight this, two research reports were launched in Islamabad on June 27, 2019.
The Institute for Research, Advocacy, and Development (Irada) facilitated these research studies and added to the documentation and knowledge base on religious minorities in Pakistan. The research findings are important and worthy to be shared with a wider audience. The first study, Narratives of Marginalization: Reporting religious minorities in Pakistani media, was conducted by Aftab Alam, Adnan Rehmat and Emilie Jacobson. The team had strong credentials as Aftab is a lawyer, Rehmat, a journalist, and Emilie, a research specialist — all three having wide experience in their respective fields.
The overarching aim of the study was to see how Pakistan’s diverse array of religious minorities (RMs) is finding itself in terms of representation in media coverage. The research questions were simple: first concerning what characterises the coverage of religious minorities in Pakistan; and second, how religious minorities are represented in the media in Pakistan. The study reviewed the general quantum of news and images related to RMs. It also tried to figure out which media carries how much coverage of them. One of the focuses of the study was also the frequency of various RMs featured in the media coverage and whether it was central or incidental.
The study found that the overall media coverage of RMs in quantum terms is generally low and the most widely available media, that is TV and radio, carries little or no coverage of them at all. “Hindus and Christian communities are the focus of almost all of what meagre coverage of RMs is available whereas other minorities such as Ahmadis, Buddhists, Kailash and Sikhs get almost no coverage.
The study reviewed the most dominant themes characterising the coverage of RMs, the news sources used in the coverage, the gender diversity in perspectives of this coverage, the stereotypes and frames in which they were portrayed and the tone of the coverage towards them. The findings reveal that the RMs coverage “in qualitative terms is generally stereotypically linked to sensitive themes such as blasphemy.” Most media paints minorities “in a victimhood framework” and the coverage about them “does not even include their views, opinions, or perspectives, rendering them voiceless”.
In terms of tone, a significant size of the coverage about RMs is inclusive and non-hostile toward them. “Most news stories are about them, not for them — most coverage is neutral, not sympathetic towards them”. The study also found that most of the coverage about RMs is reactionary or event-related, rarely stories about them because there are millions of them and deserve coverage regardless of their minority status. The media shows pretty low interest in coverage of RM-specific issues, keeping RMs generally off the news radar.
There is almost no interest in perspectives of RMs even in news stories and images related to them. As RMs are unable to influence media narratives there is almost no analysis of the challenges they face, issues they encounter, or problems they have to overcome in their personal and professional lives.
Interestingly, the print media gives relatively more coverage to RMs, which is only a fraction of the media landscape in Pakistan. TV and radio that constitute three-fifths of media, mostly ignore them. The study recommends that we raise public awareness about news diversity in Pakistani media and its challenges. And, this we need to do by sensitising and training the media on religious pluralisms and more nuanced coverage of religious minorities. Similarly we also need to promote interface between representatives of religious minorities and media to improve mutual understanding and to curb their stereotyping.
The other study is titled, Hate speech versus free speech — shrinking space for minority voices online. This study looked at the threats to online freedom of expression faced by religious minorities, information practitioners and online media platforms in Pakistan. The ambit of this study includes hate speech, threats, threat actors, response mechanisms, technical shortcomings and resource constraints faced by religious minorities, online information practitioners, civil society activists, and online media platforms in Pakistan. The researchers actively engaged with human rights commissions, civil liberties campaigners, and online information activists, online activists with religious minorities’ background and online media and community information platforms.
The study approached four human rights commissions in Pakistan, and all four confirmed the presence of hate speech and general hostility towards religious minorities in both a social context and in the online environment in Pakistan. It is commendable that all four have strong official positions on hate speech, and recognised it as a clear hazard to civil liberties. The commissions are also committed to combating hate speech with the help of stakeholders to safeguard fundamental rights of all citizens, especially, religious minorities.
Civil society campaigners have strong views on the undesirability and wide prevalence of hate speech in society and the alarming general indifference of state towards this. Eighty per cent of the respondents believed “that neither the state nor society in Pakistan adequately recognise hate speech as a problem including policy, social, and online context or the general hostility it promotes, especially towards religious minorities”. Online information activists were even more vocal and reported facing hate speech and harassment for their activism online with threats, abuse, and trolling as the most common forms of bullying to their social media activities.
This bullying mostly came from various threat actors including individuals, political entities, religious groups, unknown organised groups and even official sources. The study found that the main discussion themes online were religious minorities, security agencies, human rights, gender, politics and development, and these themes elicit the most hostile reactions from detractors online.
The two studies are informative and timely; they need to be widely circulated so that the menace of hate speech and intolerance can be countered with full force.