Hate Speech: A study of Pakistan’s Cyberspace

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After four months of hard work, its finally published and launched.



Download it here




Bytes For All launches Hate speech: A study of Pakistan’s cyberspace

The uncontrolled spread of hate speech on the Internet and social media is reaching dangerous levels, threatening society on many levels

The first detailed research into online hate speech in the Pakistan context – “Hate speech: A study of Pakistan’s cyberspace” – was launched today at Avari Towers, in Karachi.

Jahanzaib Haque, Editor, and author of the 63-page study presented the principle findings and recommendations, which consisted of two independent phases of research – an online survey on hate speech responded to by 559 Pakistani Internet users, as well as a detailed content analysis of published material and comments – both textual and iconographic – on high impact, high reach Facebook pages and Twitter accounts frequented by local audiences. [Key findings can be found on page 2 below].

Haque says “The need for such a study was paramount, given the real world impact online hate speech is having in Pakistan, whether that be the well-organized anti-Malala campaign online, how social media fueled sectarian divides during the Rawalpindi riots, the arrest of a professor on grounds of alleged blasphemy for posts run on Facebook, and even the most recent online campaign of hate against media persons. Clearly the issue needs to be addressed, but without regressive action such as state-led censorship and bans.”

The event was attended by leading media practitioners, journalists, human rights activists, civil society, researchers and major stakeholders in the online space. A panel discussion on the issue included Ch. Muhammad Sarfaraz, Deputy Director FIA, Cyber Crime Circle Lahore, Senator Saeed Ghani, Pakistan People’s Party Parliamentarian (PPP-P), Faisal Sherjan, Director Strategy and Planning at Jang Group, Barrister Salahuddin Ahmed, President, Karachi Bar Association, and Gul Bukhari, B4A Gender Programme Manager.

The report’s was produced for Bytes For All, Pakistan (B4A), a human rights organization with a focus on Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). The organization regularly organizes debate on the relevance of ICTs for sustainable development and strengthening human rights movements in Pakistan.

“We at Bytes for All hold Freedom of Expression very dear as an inviolable fundamental human right, but often see it being fettered in false paradigms of morality, security, national interest or even hate speech,” says Shahzad Ahmad, Country Director, Bytes for All Pakistan.

“For the reason that speech is regularly gagged in Pakistan under these guises, and the fact that hate speech is the only real threat to Freedom of Expression, we felt it important to study online hate speech in Pakistan, to define it using the best standards, and obtain some idea of its incidence in the country. This is important to ensure hate speech becomes clearly defined, and not confused with national security, religious sentiment, morality or decency.”

Ahmad further adds that, “We are proud to say this study is the first of its kind in Pakistan, and will form the basis for many more such studies to take this important work further. Much work in the coming years has to be done in this area to ensure that this threat does not impinge upon the freedoms we hold so dear.”

The complete ‘Pakistan Internet Landscape’ report can be downloaded from Bytes For All, Pakistan’s website.



  • Results from the online survey indicated that Pakistani internet users were largely unaware of hate speech laws in Pakistan, but were, in general, largely able to identify hate speech correctly.
  • 92% of total respondents replied “yes” to having come across hate speech online, while over half (51%) indicated they had been the target of hate speech online.
  • Of those respondents who indicated that they had been the target of hate speech online, 42% said they were targeted for their religious beliefs, 23% for their nationality, 22% based on race/ethnicity and 16% for sex/gender/sexual orientation.
  • One trend observed in the survey results was the impact of income on views, attitudes and understanding of hate speech. Respondents in the low-income bracket showed the least understanding of hate speech and were markedly worse at identifying hate speech correctly as com- pared to all other groups.
  • In terms of platforms, Facebook was highlighted as the most problematic, with 91% of respondents indicating they had come across hate speech on the platform.
  • In the detailed analysis of high impact, high reach social media accounts, the 30 Facebook pages analyzed (3,000 shares and related comments) contained 10,329 counts of hate speech, which translates to more than three counts of hate speech on every single share.
  • The 30 Twitter accounts analyzed (15,000 tweets, replies, mentions) contained 350 counts of hate speech i.e. only 2.3% of total updates examined, showing a remarkably different landscape compared to Facebook.
  • Hate speech on top Facebook and Twitter accounts that could fall under criminal offense based on the study’s definitions was negligible (less than 1%), suggesting that a solution to the problem does not lie in greater state action in catching and prosecuting individuals/groups, or through bans, but through alternate means.
  • In terms of language, hate speech recorded on Facebook was largely in Roman Urdu (74%) followed by English (22%) and Urdu script (4%). Hate speech collected on Twitter was largely in English (67%), followed by Roman Urdu (28%) and Urdu script (5%).
  • The two largest groups that were a target for hate speech on Facebook were politicians (38% of all hate speech) and members of the media/media groups (10%). These attacks on politicians and the media formed nearly half of all hate speech on the Facebook pages analyzed. On Twitter, 20% of total records were targeted at pillars of the state, with attacks on politicians (11%) and media (7%) registering highest. This high level of hate speech is especially worrying given the context of the ongoing war against terrorism and the real-life threats to life both politicians and those working in the media face.
  • The need to counter the spread of hate speech in Pakistan’s online space is a pressing concern that needs to be addressed through a multi-pronged approach that educates, creates awareness and discourages hate and intolerance, prohibits and criminalizes the most extreme and dangerous forms of hate speech by law, yet guarantees that fundamental human rights to free speech and information are safeguarded.


Advertisements beats in Pakistan (Alexa)

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According to analytics website, the Urdu news website I have lovingly nurtured and raised has beaten in terms of Pakistan traffic.;1/PK now stands at 48 in the top 100 visited sites in Pakistan (and growing fast), while Geo stands at 50 (and dropping).

This is quite an achievement for a website that was launched about 1.5 years ago. In terms of overall numbers, Geo is of course larger, but its stagnant/downward trajectory is not a good sign for a brand that should be well beyond all others.

I have written before about the need for media groups to wake up and strategize for the online space or find themselves becoming increasingly irrelevant, as brand value does not hold the same meaning online.

Lets hope we see the landscape change — in the meantime, the ZemTV’s and Hamariweb’s of local cyberspace will continue to reap the benefits of traditional media’s inability (or worse, refusal) to intelligently invest in the revolution that is at hand.

Pakistan’s Internet Landscape

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pakistan internet

The first ever comprehensive report mapping Pakistan’s past, present and possible future online – “Pakistan’s Internet Landscape” – was launched today at Avari Towers, in Karachi. Jahanzaib Haque, Web Editor, The Express Tribune and author of the 28-page report presented the principle findings and recommendations highlighted in the research.

The report outlines Internet control mechanisms deployed by the government, and highlights existing legislation and its application in relation to the internet. It provides a historical perspective of Internet censorship in Pakistan and the move to criminalize legitimate expression online. It also outlines the state of internet surveillance, means deployed, and the purpose and impact of such monitoring.

Haque says “The state’s need to police the internet has led to numerous violations of fundamental rights, particularly access to information through large-scale blocking and filtering. However, citizens have turned to proxy servers and virtual private networks to circumvent blocks put in place, so Pakistanis still have access to a wide range of content, for now.”

The event was attended by leading media practitioners, journalists, human rights activists, civil society, researchers and major stakeholders in the online space.

The report’s was produced for Bytes For All, Pakistan (B4A), a human rights organization with a focus on Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). The organization regularly organizes debate on the relevance of ICTs for sustainable development and strengthening human rights movements in Pakistan.

Emphasizing the significance of the report, Shahzad Ahmad, Country Director, Bytes for All, Pakistan, said ‘We felt the need for a comprehensive mapping of the Internet governance issues the nation is faced with, ranging from the legal framework to the technologies in use, the abuse of these technologies by the government, and impact on fundamental rights of the citizens. This study further pulls together and maps information on Internet processes and power centers to provide a baseline and a reference for citizens’ awareness of issues emerging vis-à-vis this technology vital to our lives, livelihoods, rights and freedoms.’

The report was earlier launched internationally in Bangkok, Thailand in November 2013, and was presented to UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression Frank la Rue. The report is based on Mr le Rue’s work and recommendations.


  • Internet penetration has seen growth to an estimated 10- 16% of the population, with the country boasting 15 million mobile internet users despite a lack of 3G technology.
  • A large section of internet users, particularly in rural areas, still rely on poor quality dial-up connections, or EDGE mobile connectivity, that makes most online activities difficult.­ A switch to 3G or even 4G mobile networks could be harnessed to provide internet access to rural areas, not only to mobile phones, but desktops, laptops and tablets as well.
  • Greater freedom and internet access for citizens has been met with increased state control, and systematic surveillance and censorship of the web. While blocking and filtering has been increasingly systematized in recent years, the process remains inconsistent and lacks transparency.
  • The blasphemy laws pose the most direct challenge to the internet in Pakistan, as cases such as the Facebook ban and the YouTube ban have shown that the pillars of the state appear to be in agreement when it comes to blocking content deemed blasphemous, although the blasphemy laws are problematic, and do not address the internet specifically.
  • Aside from blasphemy, blocking/filtering has largely focused on the crisis in Balochistan and information creating a perceived negative image of politicians or the military.
  • Radical religious groups have rapidly expanded in the online space, operating with impunity and forming a dangerous bloc that threatens cyberspace on many levels.
  • Most citizens have turned to proxy servers, virtual private networks and other tools to circumvent blocks. Through workarounds, Pakistanis still have access to a wide range of content.
  • The authorities push to control cyberspace breaches constitutionally established fundamental rights of citizens, and will have a negative impact on future socio economic development.
  • The disconnection of mobile services is a disturbing trend that could have far-reaching, negative implications, as mobile phones present the greatest potential for internet access in the country.
  • The state has systematically worked to legitimize the invasion of citizens’ online privacy.
  • While there is a great need for laws that deal with use of the internet in connection to illegal activities, the existing legislation and practices are flawed and open to misuse and human rights violations.
  • Cyber-attacks have been a part of Pakistan’s online space since over a decade, and almost entirely in connection with neighboring India. Both hacktivism and attacks on online businesses pose a real threat that needs to be addressed, both legislatively and through action by the security apparatus or relevant agencies.

Pakistan’s Internet Landscape by Jahanzaib Haque

They came for Facebook, YouTube…then me?

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First they came for Facebook, but the social media giant compromised its principles to provide Pakistanis a limited experience of the social network, entering a secret agreement with our government to block access to certain pages in the country.

Then they came for YouTube on religious grounds, and our largely illiterate population applauded the move to limit their access to information and freedom to speak out on an alternate medium outside the control of the state and local media. Google, for reasons of their own, has largely ignored the issue, and we have heaped scorn and hate on the company.

We have had many sections of the web being blocked recently, ranging from websites that monitored and recorded targeted attacks on Shias to the website of evolutionary biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins. We have had pro-Ahmadi websites and Facebook pages such as Roshni disappear. We have seen the continuation of a massive crackdown on Baloch websites. We have recently seen torrent sites being blocked en masse by some internet service providers (ISPs). We have had individual content targeted for bans such as the Beygairat Brigade’s music video Aalu Anday, a satirical rock song that challenged the dominant narrative of the state and our society.

It seems anything that potentially threatens the status quo is fair game for being blocked and banned, which is in direct violation of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But who cares about human rights in this country of ours.

Our Minister of State for Information Technology Anusha Rehman has proudly declared that 2,700 ‘objectionable’ websites have been blocked in Pakistan, and if she has her way, ‘objectionable content’ on the entire internet will be banned.

Sadly, our ISPs, rather than fighting for their customers’ rights, have opted to toe the line, allowing these bans based on directives issued by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) without questioning the grounds for a website being blocked.

There is no announcement to customers when a new site gets blocked. No apology. No explanation. No public list. No notice to the website owner. Only the dreaded one liner:

site blocked in pakistan

The ISPs say they are not responsible as they are only following instructions from above – but they are responsible.

The PTA says it is not responsible as it is similarly only following instructions – they too are directly responsible.

Who is actually issuing the instructions? What are they blocking (and what are they choosing not to block)?

No one knows, as there is no transparency and no legislation governing this process. So really, no one is to blame yet everyone is involved – how convenient.

The anonymous powers issuing instructions, the PTA and the ISPs know they can get away with all this because our nation is a tried and tested bunch of human cockroaches – ready to murder and lynch at the drop of a hat, yet completely ignorant and hollow at their core. We are hypocrites, which makes us easy to manipulate and squish. They know there will never be a revolution in Pakistan, much less a successful campaign against online censorship because none of us really stand united, or is seriously committed to any one set of values.

As I have written before, the values on which the internet has been created (ease of access, empowerment of the individual and such) are in direct conflict with our radicalised, reactionary and uneducated nation.

Who can we appeal to when all the pillars that regulate and govern our society are just as rotten as its people, and in this case, completely ignorant about the nature of the online space?

I fear for my little blog on WordPress. I fear for the news website I run. I fear for the Facebook pages I operate. You should too. They will get here eventually. How do I know?

The report The Express Tribune ran on Beygairat Brigade being banned, is blocked on multiple ISPs in Pakistan.

Pakistan news groups on social media: July 2013 report

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On Twitter, @etribune maintains a clear lead:

Wow Geo News Urdu and Samaa TV seem to be clear winners on Facebook — if we’re only measuring by number of likes that is.


Turns out, Tribune is coming in right next to Geo News Urdu in terms of total number of people ‘talking about this’ i.e. those who actually engage with a brand and its content (the actual standard for success).2

In terms of total number of people ‘talking about this’ divided by the number of likes, its Dunya TV up top, followed by Tribune!

Express News (in yellow) is doing pretty okay too, at third.3

Hate-Speech and Social Media in Pakistan

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Pakistani media is an agent of CIA and RAWShariat ya Shahadat (Shariah or Martydom), Maslak-e-Deoband (Cult of Deoband) and Shias are unbelievers. This is not a list of slogans chanted by extremists on the streets of Pakistan. It is a very small sampling of the thousands of hate-fueled extremist Facebook pages that make up the Pakistani online experience today.

It is a matter of grave concern that for a country that is extremely sensitive to controversial material, the 8.5 million Facebook users from inside Pakistan, have access to messages from local extremists banned organizations and militants with complete impunity. More worryingly, it seems the hate speech against minorities such as the Shia and Ahmadiyya communities is resonating with a majority of local users, along with demands for jihad and making Pakistan an Islamic caliphate.

Do you know which locally run Facebook page has the highest engagement levels – the ‘talking about this’ metric – with Pakistan audiences? Most would assume it is OLX Pakistan, which social media analytics site Social Bakers lists as the number one Facebook page in Pakistan, but that is simply not true. Sorry OLX, your massive ad spend on local media, social media and your marketing teams may have you at 1,965,047 likes and 110,722 users talking about your page as of July 18, but My Ideology is Islam & My Identity is Pakistan (MIMIP) stands at 581,990 likes and a whopping 491,154 talking about the page.

Why is MIMIP almost five times more engaging than the biggest Facebook page in Pakistan? It’s simple really. The page averages about one share every two minutes, up to 10 hours a day. What do these shares consist of? The latest statements by Jamaat-ud-Dawah chief (formerly Lashkar-e-Taiba) Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, generic religious messages, anti-Ahmadi hate speech, health tips, the faces of Pakistani TV anchorspoliticians and senior members of the judiciary Photoshopped with dogs, demons or Hindu/Jewish symbols, anti-Hindu, anti-India hate speech, anti-Semitism, racist, homophobic content, calls for jihad and news updates.

Given the high volume of content MIMIP has to churn out, its social media team tends to steal content from like-minded pages; mostly from the hundreds of pages a little further down the extremist rabbit hole, similar to the ones mentioned at the start of this article.

Let’s ignore the question of who is running this page and to what end right now. Let’s instead focus on the fact that such a monstrosity is allowed to exist and thrive on a social network that has no office or representatives in Pakistan, while the government ignores it. Let’s focus on the fact that reporting much of the hate-speech, slanderous content and even calls to violence and genocide of minorities generated on such pages is futile because the text on the shares is in Urdu or other regional languages.

This is not all we should be focusing on. In the YouTube ban case hearing in the Lahore High Court on July 4, 2013, a representative of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) claimed that Pakistan has an existing “arrangement” with Facebook that allows the government to have “undesirable” content and Facebook pages blocked.

The question arises – if the above Facebook pages are active, what is the government having blocked? Blasphemous content? Determined by whom? The most high-profile case of a local Facebook page being blocked by the PTA recently has been that of Roshni – a page promoting progressive, secular, liberal ideas and sharing messages in support of Malala, Ahmadis, the Shia community, the local Hindu community and anti-blasphemy laws. The page was also blocked for Pakistanis by Facebook and according to an online interview with the founder of Roshni, “They [Facebook] never cared to explain why they did this – maybe they received a lot of complaints and banned on number count.”

Roshni is back on Facebook as a new page, but it’s feared that it is only a matter of time before it will be taken off again. Given this near-hopeless state of affairs, we can all just sit back and relax, subjected to such a foul and destructive narrative, while the government remains aloof at best and complicit at worst. How can citizens fight back when the powers that be have Facebook on their side in an apparent deal that is as devious as it is against the social networking giant’s lofty ‘principles’.

Best to just sip on some mango juice (as long as it’s not Shezan – because that would be pro-Ahmadi) and ‘like’ the Umar Media Facebook page run by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. It makes staying up-to-date with the latest beheading videos so much easier.

Published by the Jinnah Institute.

The future of news is digital

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The mobile and tablet revolution is upon us, faster than we in the media industry can respond. News is becoming more social and more real-time. The future of news is conclusively digital and multiplatform. These are just a few of the key findings of the newly released Digital NewsReport 2013 by Reuters Institute.

Is Pakistan’s media landscape going to be impacted by any, or all of these global trends? Analytics seem to say yes, with mobile phones and tablets already forming a sizable chunk of daily visits to news sites including The Express Tribune and Express’s Urdu portal, with growth at a rate of multiple percentage points per month. A recent report by mobile survey company found that of the 30 million users online in Pakistan, 15 million have browsed the web using their mobile phone, while 11 per cent of 182 million page views in April 2013 were mobile visits.

This is good news for our media industry, for a number of reasons. For one, the Digital NewsReport found that “as people acquire more devices they consume more news in aggregate (time spent) — but also access news more often throughout the day.” For those worried that print editions will die a quick death, the report also somewhat encouragingly points out that across multiple countries measured, an average of 49 per cent of those who accessed news on a tablet said they also read a printed newspaper, at least, once each week. Claimed newspaper purchase (at least once a week) remained high — being strongest in Japan (68 per cent), Italy (59 per cent), and Germany (56 per cent) and lowest in France (39 per cent) and the US (42 per cent). If this holds true for Pakistan, in the next five years, we can expect digital to cause major changes in newsroom structures and workflows, possibly the downfall of a few who fail to adapt, but by and large, digital will only extend the range of options for readers, not replace traditional media for now.

Another finding of the Reuters report that suggests Pakistan is poised for a rapid digital media revolution is the fact that, “younger people are more likely to use social media and aggregator brands and in all countries they show a strong preference for online.” The report found that those under 45 cited the internet as their main source of news as well as their most frequently accessed source. Given that Unicef reports Pakistan’s youth bulge as one of the largest in the world, and the fact that mobile teledensity is 70 per cent of the population as of May 2013, it is likely that the big challenges that face mobile internet — including cost of smartphones and the ability to read — will be overcome very rapidly if young consumers are given half a chance and cheap Chinese-made smartphones.

We can also expect news brands to lose their role as gatekeepers of information as digital becomes more mainstream locally. The Digital News Report found that, “brands are being increasingly dis-intermediated by a growing range of pathways to their content. This is especially the case for light and occasional users and for younger users.” In other words, news brand are not the primary gatekeepers of information anymore. Whether the digital user is reaching a newspaper or TV channel’s content through YouTube, Flipboard, Google, Facebook, Twitter or any number of aggregators, what matters to him/her is finding the content they are seeking, with plenty of alternate options at hand. A seamless digital experience will, for many casual users, trump ‘good’ journalism in the future.

Whether our media deals with the digital revolution in a haphazard, adhoc manner or successfully strategises for a tumultuous future, as the Reuters report concludes, “the overwhelming message is that audiences increasingly expect news that they can access anytime, anywhere … clearly news brands still matter but a strong name and long heritage is no longer enough.”

Published in The Express Tribune, July 25th, 2013.