An anti-terrorism court (ATC) has jailed a Shia man for 13 years after he posted what was deemed as ‘sectarian hate speech’ on Facebook. However, given the severity of the punishment and the unambiguity of the crime, several human rights activists have condemned the ruling as “extremely concerning”.

Section 9 of the ATA states that a person is deemed guilty of an offence if he “intends to stir up sectarian hatred”, or commits an act which is “likely” to cause hatred. Moreover, Section 11-W states that the printing, publishing or dissemination of any material, “whether by audio or video-cassettes or by written, photographic, electronic, digital, wall-chalking, or any method which incites religious, sectarian or ethnic hatred…” is punishable by law. While the laws set out are clear, they leave room for the violation of basic rights and implicating people on the smallest offences.

These arrests have become increasingly frequent. Saqlain Haider, 32, who ran a small hotel in Chiniot district south of Islamabad, was also fined Rs250, 000 rupees for posting hateful material. The convict was arrested and was charged for spreading sectarian hatred under various clauses of the anti-terrorism act.

This is all well and good. Having a strict stance regarding hate speech is essential to curb this growing problem. However, it will never be truly effective unless there is a way of gauging the content as inciting, rather than arbitrary arrests off social media.

Rather than curbing free speech, the authorities will be well advised to set up surveillance on those individuals that are who are voicing hate speech. By putting people in jail for random acts on Facebook, ones that have no evidence of actually instigating hate, it will be counterproductive. People who indulge in hate speech, will simply act on it, but will not turn to social media for spreading their hate. They will just find another medium to carry out their mission.

Pakistan needs a comprehensive approach to solve the growing problems of hate speech, from which it is tremendously suffering from. A witch-hunt on social media is the last thing that this country needs. Seminaries and educational institutions that are promoting hate speech must be brought under the law, where only a concrete policy will curb the actual fear and consequences that come with it.