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

Senate Defence Committee’s Cyber Security manual for journalists is…odd, but cool?

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The Senate Defence Committee has been kind enough to release what is, most definitely, a useful cyber security manual for Pakistani journalists. The booklet can be downloaded from here.

I found the manual refreshingly honest and straight forward — to the point where I really have to wonder, did our government folk really read the details before publishing this?

Check out this matter-of-fact discussion of who could harm journalists:

Who could harm you?

As CPJ says Pakistani journalists face a wide array of threats, the risks can come from number of places. Therefore, it is important to be alert to all those, who are likely to be affected by your work.

The government, the military, and their spy agencies are normally at the top of any list of those likely to be snooping. However, now terrorist groups and criminals are increasingly resorting to cyber-surveillance.

Gotcha! Thanks for the heads up!

Next anomaly — In 2011,  the government ordered all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to discontinue all virtual private network (VPN) services in Pakistan to prevent extremists from using the secure networks for communication. It is unclear whether this order was fully implemented, but it also has not been withdrawn. In which case, its a bit odd (though two thumbs up) that the cyber security manual encourages the use of VPNs.

Anonymous browsing is useful for protecting online identity, avoiding surveillance and accessing website that could have been blocked by authorities. It would also conceal your current whereabouts.

Anonymity can be achieved by using various anonymous or proxy webservers that act as a curtain between you and the websites that you are accessing. This can be done either through the use of a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or free anonymizing services like the Tor (The Onion Router).

Aren’t you the same guys who are out blocking proxy sites and banning VPNs? No?

This last one takes the cake though — the manual has this gem for journalists to secure their mobile phones.

Always prefer to use a pre-paid connection that is not directly registered in your name. All such connections should be bought and recharged with cash and not by using credit cards.

Thanks! I’m ditching my post-paid SIM — linked to my name and with a submitted NIC copy — right now!

Just your average Pakistani response to 15 news stories

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NOTE: Most of these responses are inspired by real comments

What we skip over: Just another rape case in Pakistan

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A little girl’s body was recovered in Pakistan today — and almost nobody noticed.

The story was not filed, as far as I could see, but a few photographs came through.

There were two photographs of the victim, probably aged 10-14. The photos must have been obtained from the girl’s family, who shared them with the media in hopes of having their story heard. The photos are recent, given the time stamp on them:



Then there is the image of the girl’s body – recovered, bearing marks of extreme torture and cruelty. It is an obscene image, but a necessary one I feel (and so did the photographer).

Sadly, it only captures a small part of the horror that must have been the child’s last hours, last minutes. I have uploaded it without blurring because the girl that once lived is no longer identifiable.

Warning: Must be over 18 to click and see this image. Depicts a dead body/graphic violence.

There is also a photo of her mother, begging the state for justice.


And last, there is a photo of SP (Investigation) Tanveer Hussain Tunio – the man who will presumably ensure the criminal(s) are apprehended.


Just another Sunday in Pakistan. The story is definitely not on TV. If it ever does appear on TV, it will be wrapped in many comforting layers of dramatization and music to prevent the news from appearing ‘too real’.

I doubt this story will make the papers.  If it does, it will probably be a single column or a brief. Its a ‘done-to-death’ topic, too gory, too titillating, too scandalous, too shameful, too grim, too violent, too sensitive, too taboo, too anti-Pakistan etc.

I have no compelling words to round this off; I think the photos and the (lack of) media interest says enough — not just about the media, but our society as a whole.

Thanks to Photographer Hussain Ahmed who made an effort to file something on this.

Of course, I support the ban on Skype, Viber

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These are crazy times we live in. We are in this war against bloodthirsty, tech-savvy terrorists for the long haul, no holds barred. This fact must be drilled into naive minds who believe a violation of fundamental rights like freedom of expression, right to information and privacy are a gross overstep by the state. We must remember that our brave parliamentarians have already signed off on such stellar legislation as the Pakistan Telecommunications (Re-organisation) Act, 1996, which allows for communication services to be suspended in the name of ‘national security’.

Needless to say, I support and applaud the Sindh government’s move to block and ban Skype, Viber, WhatsApp and Tango. In fact, I am so deeply concerned about the terrorist threat, that, much like the diligent student who compiled a list of 780,000 porn sites for the PTA to ban in 2012, I have come up with a game plan for our security apparatus.

First off, we need to ensure that the current ban on messaging apps is extended to Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest and all other visual-based means of online communication. As Sindh Information Minister Sharjeel Memon so astutely noted, the “hoshyaar” terrorists switched from cellular service to online apps to avoid being tracked — what would prevent them from moving on to the next best alternative? I can already picture terrorists Instagramming their way through our vulnerable urban centres, setting up private Pinterest boards highlighting their favourite sites to bomb. Snapchat, in particular, is a threat, as the fact that exchanged photos exploding on a timer will naturally appeal to the twisted, militant mind. Let us not forget that these networks are also chock-full of young people of questionable moral character; the likelihood of these networks turning into a militant recruiting ground are high.

Ban them all I say, but remember, the ban on thousands of pornographic, blasphemous and anti-state websites has really not panned out, as citizens have turned to proxy servers, virtual private networks and tools such as Spotflux, HotSpot Shield and Tor Browser to circumvent such blocks. All these tools need to be banned and all future tools that allow workaround access to Skype, Viber et al must be banned too; else, this whole effort will be worthless.

I also noted that Memon has called on the federal government to contact the companies mentioned above to provide access to private user data. We all remember how successful the government was with Google on this front, so I recommend against turning to these terrorist-enabling scumbags. Instead, we should remember that our brave parliamentarians have recently signed off on The Investigation for Fair Trial Act 2013, which gives security agencies the authority to collect evidence online “by means of modern techniques and devices”. The Act has thoughtfully included broad definitions of who can be monitored and warrants are issued by a judge in their chamber — a process which is not public record.

Given this excellent legislative cover, I think the government should set up a secret agency comprising several hundred ‘online experts’, whose only job is to sit at the Pakistan Internet Exchange and monitor all these potentially deadly internet packets one by one. Billions of these packets will be unrelated, private exchanges between citizens, but I am sure these messages will provide plenty of fringe benefits to incentivise those carrying out this honourable work.

Once all communication in Pakistan is successfully blocked or monitored, we can then turn our attention to transport networks. Roads are used by terrorists far too often and must be banned. In case anyone feels this plan is ludicrous, we need only turn to Bilawal House to see a successful implementation. Remember, no sacrifice is too great in a time of war.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 5th, 2013.