Pakistan cites ‘hate speech’ restriction in effort to censor academic freedom petition

By January 10, 2019

Efforts to censor student and faculty advocacy for free expression around the world are not uncommon, but a recent report reveals a particularly concerning attempt by Pakistan’s government to use its restrictions on “hate speech” to pressure Google to censor a faculty petition about academic freedom.

Yesterday, activist and researcher Usama Khilji shared the report on Twitter, noting that Google denied the request, which was filed between January and June 2018:

Request

The Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA) requested removal of a Google Drive file containing the content of an open letter from concerned faculty members across several universities in Pakistan regarding academic freedom and increased repression on university campuses. The letter details academic events that were cancelled, the dismissal of professors, and cancelling of courses which encourage critical thinking. The government authority cited Section 11 on “Hate speech”, and Section 37 on “Unlawful online content” as the legal basis for removal.

Outcome

We did not remove the file.

The request came from the Pakistan Telecom Authority, which cited Section 11 and Section 37 — which lay out restrictions on “hate speech” and “unlawful online content” — of Pakistan’s 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act:

11. Hate speech—Whoever prepares or disseminates information, through any information system or device that advances or is likely to advance interfaith, sectarian or racial hatred shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to seven years or with fine or with both.

[ . . . ]

  1. Unlawful on-line content—l) The Authority shall have the power to remove or block or issue directions for removal or blocking of access to an information through any information system if it considers it necessary in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court or commission of or incitement to an offence under this Act.

The open letter, which appears to be this one shared by Naya Daur Media, was signed by nearly 200 faculty members from Pakistan, the United States, and other countries. The letter documents four serious accusations of censorship that took place over the course of two days in April 2018. Two events — one that focused on growing social movements within Pakistan and another that honored the life of Mashal Khan, an Abdul Wali Khan University student who was lynched by a mob after being accused of blasphemy — were “forcibly cancelled” hours before they were set to begin. The letter also cited the sudden firing of Dr. Ammar Ali Jan at Punjab University and the questioning of and threats toward Gomal University faculty by state agents.

The letter claimed that the “four events are part of a wider trend that stifles critical thinking and discussion on university campuses.” It concluded:

As faculty members, we believe the university must be a space where faculty and students are free to share ideas and engage in thoughtful analysis of pressing social issues without experiencing fear or intimidation. The function of the university is to foster an atmosphere in which ideas are respectfully shared and rigorous research and analysis is encouraged. It is only through open discussion and debate that our most pressing social and political problems will be properly understood and diagnosed. The future of our country rests on how well we train our students as thinkers and analysts.

So, to recap, Pakistan Telecom Authority officials claimed a letter from dozens of faculty members decrying censorship and declaring their right to engage in scholarship constituted speech “likely to advance interfaith, sectarian or racial hatred,” and must be censored.

While it’s fortunate that Google rejected Pakistan’s takedown request, the underlying problem with Pakistan’s draconian speech restrictions remains. Pakistan’s attempt to silence faculty members, and enlist tech companies to do so, shows that faculty voices advocating for the right to freely speak in Pakistan sorely need to be heard.