Activists share concerns for safety amid attacks on free speech

KARACHI: In the light of a recent Supreme Court order that halted airing of hateful content on electronic media, activists from various civil rights organisations held a meeting on Tuesday to discuss their concerns for safety amid “attacks on free speech” and asked if the state was “still backing fascist gangs on streets”.

The concern for safety was raised in the backdrop of clashes between the police and activists at a protest held last month near the Karachi Arts Council to demand the release of missing bloggers. While four of the five missing bloggers have since returned, Samar Abbas, the fifth, has not yet contacted his family, one of his co-workers said.

As a follow-up to a similar gathering in Lahore on Feb 3, journalist Imtiaz Alam spoke about the recent spate of “hate speeches apostatising opponents with different religious and ideological viewpoints by a particular news channel inciting violence”.

He said, “Half-hearted and selective implementation of the National Action Plan and the absence of parliamentary oversight over security agencies, among other things, was a cause for concern.”

Representing the Strengthening Participatory Organisation (SPO), Qurat Mirza said, “Televangelists have a huge fan-following and their speech can prove detrimental to the lives of the people they are preaching hate against.”

A columnist from Express Urdu shared the abuse he had recently received under the comments section of his weekly column posted on Facebook.

Sharing his recent experience, he said, “Some of them think I should be killed for favouring one sect over the other. Even if I haven’t favoured any one in particular, those who abuse say I should be hanged.”

Nuzhat Kidvai of the Women Action Forum (WAF) said, “With anyone getting labelled a blasphemer, mostly without a mistake, I need to [know] the language I should use in order to tackle the ongoing situation.”

Alam explained that often conflict between news organisations came in the way of controlling the matter.

The participants, mostly journalists, artists, lawyers and producers, demanded an end to violent extremism and dangerous narratives, and demand accountability of and parliamentary oversight over all intelligence agencies.

Mr Alam added, “We need to know the role of the state and who it is siding with.”