South Asia’s Free Speech Conundrum

In a region where illiteracy is still widespread and internet usage is small but rapidly increasing, there is a growing need for education about how images and data can be manipulated to incite hatred, and a need to build public knowledge in understanding the malicious intent behind these actions.

Posted on 02/9/15
By Mirza Sadaqat Huda | Via Himal Southasian
A Candle light vigil at India Gate in New Delhi. (Photo by Joe Athialy, Creative Commons License)
A Candle light vigil at India Gate in New Delhi. (Photo by Joe Athialy, Creative Commons License)

The impact of ethno-religious conflicts, hate speech and inflammatory rhetoric expose an ironic anomaly in South Asia: while the post-1947 demarcation of borders has suffocated ancient trade, transport and human links, the ‘borderless world’ facilitated by electronic media and social networking has played a catalytic role in inciting ethnic, religious and nationalistic sentiments.

 

The reactions by South Asians to the heinous terrorist attack on cartoonists in Paris have conveniently overlooked the fact that in our part of the world, the use of social networking to incite communal hatred in individual countries has continued unabated, and media in the region have often portrayed xenophobic images of our neighbors. The debate centered on this particular incident that we have been drawn into has little relevance for South Asia’s collective futures. This is not to deny the importance of the debate on freedom of expression and religious sensitivity in South Asia, as has been made apparent by reactions to publications by Taslima Nasreen, Wendy Doniger and Perumal Murugan, among others. However, amid the cacophony of op-eds and expert opinions that follow incidents such as the Charlie Hebdo attacks, we often neglect to undertake contextual and policy-centric analyses.

 

There is a growing need to examine the interplay between freedom of expression, religious sensitivity, people’s perceptions, and the use of modern communication and information technology, and the impact of these on communal harmony and regional cohesion in South Asia.

 

While hubris-laden liberals and Islamist radicals continue to engage in debates on whether freedom of speech or religious sentiments should be given precedence, and opportunists vie to promote a compromise between the two, policymakers in South Asia face a more confronting set of challenges. Despite the fact that South Asian governments are well aware of the dangers of religious provocation and sometimes clamp down on material in mainstream media deemed to be inflammatory, social networking sites have been misused to incite communal tensions in the region, a trend that is likely to increase in the near future. Furthermore, media biases have led to misrepresentations of neighboring states that, in some ways, cement the dehumanizing caricatures of others in the region that have been produced for years.

 

South Asians must go beyond the debate between freedom of speech and religious sensitivity. We must ask ourselves, when, and not if, electronic media and social networking sites are used to incite communal tensions, how do we ensure resilience and adherence to peace? How do we collectively, as the citizens of this region, see through the biased representations of each other’s countries in certain media outlets to appreciate the commonalities in our hopes, fears and aspirations? The answers lie in examining the national impact of the misuse of social networking sites to incite violence and the regional impact of prejudiced media analyses on perceptions about neighboring states.

 

Social media menace
The country-specific impact of misuse of social networking to incite violence can be broadly exemplified by the riots in Ramu in southern Bangladesh in 2012 and in Pune, India in 2014. In both cases, Facebook was used to incite religious and societal tensions. In Ramu, a fake Facebook account was used to implicate a member of the Buddhist community in posting a picture desecrating the Quran, which resulted in an episode of collective punishment against the minority community. In the ensuing riots, more than 50 houses and 12 places of worship were destroyed. In the case of Pune, a Facebook page defaming the warrior king Shivaji Bhonsle and late Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray was used to instigate rioting in which more than 150 vehicles were damaged, places of worship were attacked and a random member of the Muslim community was killed. In both instances, minorities were targeted not just by members of radical groups, but – and this is unfortunately true about most riots in South Asia – by ordinary people who were swept up by the frenzy of hatred, violence and ignorance.

 

One can argue that the role of social networking sites in such incidents is minimal, and that communal conflicts are usually ignited by rumors or small altercations that spill over into deadly riots. However, both these incidents highlight that in a region where illiteracy is still widespread and internet usage is small but rapidly increasing, there is a growing need for education about how images and data can be manipulated to incite hatred, and a need to build public knowledge in understanding the malicious intent behind these actions. Such a process of knowledge building, in conjunction with the spread of information technology in South Asia, can go a long way to manage sensitivity to inflammatory material and increase adherence to peaceful means of showing disapproval, not only to communal propaganda but also to political and social commentaries.

 

In addition to instigating violence, inflammatory material on social media can have a more subtle and arguably more sinister impact in South Asian countries by influencing the perceptions that youth in the region hold towards certain religious communities. According to a study by the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives on anti-Muslim Facebook pages in Sri Lanka, “…the exponential increase of social media users in the country, the complex dynamics of the growth and spread of hate, hurt and harm in online fora contributes to both a deep and early radicalization of opinion particularly amongst a younger demographic that at its most benign, is fertile ground for subsequent exploitation by extremist actors…”. The study mentions that these pages on Facebook often bypass automated and human-controlled hate speech monitoring systems due to their content being in Sinhalese, and draw the attention of mostly 18 to 24 year olds, as evidenced by the demographic data of account holders who ‘like’ or ‘share’ the contents of these pages.

 

These findings are relevant beyond Sri Lanka alone and can be related to many other Facebook pages that incite hatred and division between communities in South Asian countries. A policy response to incidents where Facebook is used to instigate violence, like in Ramu and Pune, may require interventions both in terms of education about technological manipulation and ‘off-line’ initiatives aimed at addressing misperceptions about minority communities. These ‘off-line’ initiatives can include interfaith dialogues, workshops on conflict prevention and reconciliation that specifically target the youth, and the promotion of anti-communal messages by public figures who have a strong influence on the younger generation of South Asia. 

 

Managing misrepresentation
On a regional level, certain elements in the media have not only misrepresented our neighbors, they have even portrayed them as aggressors with nefarious motives. Incredulous claims regarding migration, emotional manipulation of communal violence and one-sided and pro-establishment voices have, at times, drowned out any dispassionate and factual analysis. Once again, ultra-nationalist and anti-regional rhetoric in the media is amplified as it gets disseminated through social media, although the cumulative impact of Facebook pages that denigrate particular communities or neighboring countries is debatable and requires further studies. The small number of biased publications is not representative of the majority of media outlets in South Asia that have adopted a certain degree of professionalism and responsibility. Unfortunately, the voices of demagogues are often the loudest, and this is also the case, at times, for what passes as scholarly work in the region. As South Asians, we must ask ourselves ‘when was the last time we read something good about our neighboring countries in a local media source?’

 

There have been limited concrete policy initiatives to reduce misperceptions in the region apart from dialogues at very senior levels, which have little trickle-down impact. The myopia produced in the ‘borderless’ online world can be ameliorated through the relaxation of physical borders. Simply encouraging tourist visits to Delhi or Dhaka will not create immunity to the vitriol promoted by hack journalists and self-proclaimed experts. There needs to be medium- to short-term exchanges between civil society advocates and organizations and, more importantly, between research and academic institutions. So far, this has been limited to holding dialogues and presenting papers, which offers opportunities for cross-regional knowledge building but, as it stands, frequently relies heavily on secondary data. When primary data is collected it is often done with the purpose of proving an already well-established point of view. Medium- to long-term exchanges between young academics and researchers can be more useful, particularly given that it is this group of people who are more likely to publish their perspectives in local media and pass on their views to those they teach and mentor.

 

I had the pleasure of meeting a PhD student from India, who after reading the far-fetched claims made in publications such as Bangladesh: The Next Afghanistan? was surprised by the prevalence of secular Bengali identity that he came across during an extended field visit to the country. An associate professor from a public university in Bangladesh told me how on an academic assignment he had discovered the cosmopolitan nature of Lahore, hardly an image we muster about anything related to Pakistan. My medium-term research assignment in New Delhi has taught me about the pluralist and syncretic culture of India and the vast diversity of its political landscape, which runs counter to the ‘saffron wave’ impression that is omnipresent in the media. This is not meant to water down the existential threat posed by fundamentalism, terrorism and the existence of vested groups in each of these countries that aim to undermine regional cohesion. It is also true that constructive criticism of a neighboring country’s policies is not only warranted but at times essential in creating a platform for building peace. Nonetheless, despite the ‘doom and gloom’, there are many positive developments in South Asia and lessons to be learned from each other that also deserve to be mentioned.

 

At a more basic level, South Asian schools may consider emphasizing commonalities in cultural identity in primary and secondary education, while continuing to legitimately stress national identity. The Partition of 1947 or the Liberation War of 1971 should neither be denied for their historical importance, nor undermined in terms of their ideological contribution and the formation of national identities. However, as we teach our future generations about the inherent importance of these issues, perhaps we can also emphasize the similarities we share in art, culture, language and music across the region. This can perhaps create a balance between being a proud Bangladeshi, Indian or Nepali and also being aware not just historically, but also culturally, that not too long ago, we were all part of a cohesive landscape.

 

However, long-term research exchanges can be costly, and proposing ideas that run counter to the mainstream can be difficult. Creating platforms for greater regional understanding is a difficult task in South Asia, and one that requires innovative ideas and nonconformity to established norms.

 

As South Asians, we must take steps to collectively mitigate the threat posed by those who exploit social networking sites and technology to undermine communal harmony in individual countries, and also make efforts to see beyond the misperceptions of neighboring states that are presented by certain media commentators. In a globalized world, we often get drawn into debates that have limited relevance to the countries and people of our region. If there is one thing that South Asians can draw from the despicable incident in Paris, it is introspection. Our problems regarding social networking, media and expression are related to a gap between perceptions and reality and require common and regional responses – a fact that is lost on those who are busy trying to claim a moral high ground on far-away incidents.

 

Mirza Sadaqat Huda is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining, the University of Queensland, Australia. He has previously worked as a Senior Research Associate at the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, Dhaka, was a Visiting Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, and a Visiting PhD Candidate at SANDEE, Kathmandu.

This article first appeared in Himal Southasian, a leading publication of Nepal. Click here to go to the original.

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