Drive against free speech

Updated July 06, 2019

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THREATS to journalism in Pakistan, and by extension freedom of expression, continue to rear their head frequently in the online space.

On Thursday, a Twitter campaign was launched under the hashtag #ArrestAntiPakjournalists, with over 28,000 tweets published in a matter of hours.

Consequently, the hashtag trended at number one position in Pakistan for some time.

A cursory look at the content revealed that this was not an organic expression of public sentiment, but rather an orchestrated campaign with a limited set of messages and visuals — including calls to ‘hang’ media persons — being reproduced en masse by dubious accounts, of which the top two identified by Twitter include @IKWarriors and @IKWarrior boasting PTI logos.

Specific targets appeared to be journalists who criticise the government and the military.

This intimidation tactic is blatantly transparent, falls under criminal activity, especially in the case of calls to violence, and yet continues to occur again and again.

Those executing such campaigns operate with impunity, and the perception that arises from the timing of events and the accounts that run them suggest a troubling reason.

Irrespective of whether or not this perception is correct, something must be done to undo the damage such intimidation causes.

Firstly, there is an undeniable chilling effect that accompanies such hostility, leading to greater caution on the part of those targeted, and consequently less free speech when it comes to state matters.

Secondly, it creates a false narrative, misleading the public directly through misinformation within the information broadcast, and indirectly by suggesting this is what people truly think.

Thirdly, while this may not be the intent of those using such scare tactics, their messages may embolden a small minority of individuals to pursue real-world violence against journalists.

Lastly, it creates a bad impression for outsiders seeing such transparent attacks on Pakistani citizens.

It is up to the state to take notice of these activities and to end them quickly and conclusively, or suffer the consequences of allowing online hate speech when it is they who become the target.

Published in Dawn, July 6th, 2019