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Tackling hate speech

Only well-prepared and well-informed youth can respond to hate speech effectively

Tackling hate speech
Illusion of freedom.

In early 1990s, I unsuccessfully tried to become a lawyer and we were taught a subject of Tort in our first academic year. A tort, in common law jurisdictions, is a civil wrong that unfairly causes someone else to suffer loss or harm resulting in legal liability for the person who commits the tortuous act, called a tortfeasor. In the first lecture, our teacher of Tort, after giving details of the subject, gave a discouraging statement and said that law of tort is not applicable in Pakistan.

I am not an expert in law yet after mapping the flux of hate speech from textbooks, I can understand the teacher was right. No doubt a remedy for hate speech is in the law of tort, but due to the absence of a proper law our courts are flooded with defamation cases. Everyone knows that there is no harm in using hate speech in Pakistan. That is why it encourages provocateurs to use hate speech as a weapon against opponents. There are some other laws against hate speech but their implementation is questionable too.

Last week, I shared the results of a study “Hate Speech on Mass and Social Media in Pakistan 2015” published by Bargad. According to the report, 91.2 per cent students believed that they were familiar with the concept of hate speech and 59.2 per cent believed that hate speech is more prevalent on social media than other forums. Yet more than 80 per cent students have no knowledge of any law regarding hate speech in Pakistan. We are ready to use youth in politics and for this purpose our politicians are playing with their ego, but no one is ready to engage them through informed resistance at all.

The students surveyed did not seem to believe that school textbooks were important at all in driving hate speech in Pakistan. Although in the recommendations Bargad rightly emphasised on the importance of unbiased textbooks, understanding of youngsters clearly shows how unaware they are about the relevant laws and the root-causes of hate speech.

I can reproduce numerous sentences and pictures from textbooks based on intolerance against rural life, women and non-Muslims. I studied in Don Bosco High School, Lahore, from 1971 till 1980. Till matriculation, I did not know about the sects of my class fellows. But today school students not only know it but also discuss it too.

Ethnic and linguistic biases play equal role in spreading hate speech, according to the report. The alarming revelation is about the role of teachers and seniors who play a very negative role. More than 55 per cent students said they have experienced hate speech from their friends and superiors.

The point I want to stress is the presence of illusion of freedom and power among youngsters. They are victim of their over-confidence. Though they claim they know hate speech, they neither know about any law nor they can understand sources of intolerance and biases.

The worst form of slavery is mental slavery which gives you the illusion of freedom, makes you trust, love and defend your oppressor while making an enemy of those who are trying to free you or open your eyes.

More than 85 per cent students expressed ignorance about the terms of Section 153A of the Pakistan Telecommunications Act of 1996. These students are studying in higher education in 34 different disciplines. They will enter practical life after two or three years and will possess important seats in different public or private institutions. They will carry that mindset and will protect it too.

Prejudiced generalisations about communities is a dangerous trend often found not only in textbooks but also in popular literature and in many ways it plays an important role in the making of a biased mindset among students. For example, Hindus are clever people, Jews are conspirators, rural and tribal people are ignorant, girls are domestic spices and women have less muscular power than men.

The survey shows that though young people have heard of hate speech and many have confronted it too, they are not well-prepared to handle it. More than 50 per cent claim they have not encountered any form of hate speech in any form of media, while 15 per cent respondents were undecided on the matter.

How to tackle and respond to hate speech is an important part of the survey, but here students’ response was comparatively very poor. Positively speaking, the youth want to take advantage of their demographic power, but the vital next step is to ensure an environment that enables them to achieve this desire. If they are not well-prepared and well-informed, this whole exercise will be futile. Authors of the report have proposed three key practical recommendations:

The first recommendation is to ensure that there exists tighter legislation regarding definitions and designations of hate speech. While there exist many definitions for hate speech in the Pakistani legal system, they are intensely malleable and can be manipulated to ensure that forms of hate speech are considered legitimate speech. Primarily, this is based on intention and on loose definitions of public order. Tighter legislation ensures a smoother pathway for the prosecution of those who carry out and propagate hate speech and incite violence both on social as well as mainstream print and online media.

The second recommendation is to ensure that young people are aware of legislation regarding hate speech in the Pakistani legal system. The youth must also be encouraged to act on these forms of legislation. As the third section of the survey demonstrated, the number of students who are aware of anti-hate speech laws is very low. In order to effectively tackle hate speech, those who are affected by it must be made aware of the rights that they possess against people who perpetuate hate speech. This can be done by way of public campaigns, training sessions, orientations and distributing of pamphlets.

The third recommendation is to follow the advice issued directly by students that partook in this survey. 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 teaching children how to differentiate between legitimate criticisms and hate speech. While most students stated that they were aware of the concept of hate speech, many did not feel it to be relevant to their personal lives. Providing children with a stronger ability to identify hate speech will strengthen their abilities to counter it and use spaces to promote more peaceful narratives, which are needed for the development of youth in Pakistan.

Aamir Riaz

aamir riaz
The author is a Lahore-based researcher.

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