Religious minorities overlooked in Pakistan’s mainstream media

In addition to being largely overlooked in Pakistan’s mainstream media coverage, religious minorities suffer hate speech on social media and online harassment. New IMS research shines light on the depths of invisibility

by Adnan Rehmat, Islamabad

Pakistani media is deeply stereotypical about its portrayal of the country’s 7.5 million citizens of non-Muslim religious minority backgrounds who largely remain unheard, unseen and mostly marginalized in the national discourse. Hate speech against religious minorities on social media and their online harassment are also growing threats to freedom of expression in the country of 207 million people. The government and key stakeholders must take collaborative and urgent remedial steps to protect the rights of the minorities and to bring them into the socio-political mainstream aided by a more sensitive and professional media. 

This was the focus and consensus of a landmark conference, “Media for All: National Conference on Pluralism and Diversity in Pakistani Media,” held in Islamabad on June 27, 2019. The conference was attended by representatives of religious minorities, media, human rights commissions, government, political parties, civil society and eminent human rights defenders.

The lively conference considered the startling findings presented before them from a set of two recent research studies facilitated by International Media Support (IMS) through its Pakistani partner, the Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development (IRADA) and voluntarily co-hosted by the statutory People’s Commission on Minorities’ Rights (PCMR) and Sindh Commission on the Status of Women (SCSW).

Research studies prove depth of under-representation of religious minorities

One research study was titled “Narratives of Marginalisation – Reporting Religious Minorities in Pakistani Media’, a content analysis of the portrayal of religious minorities by mainstream national TV channels, radio stations, newspapers and news websites. The second research study was titled ‘Hate Speech versus Free Speech – Shrinking Space for Minority Voices Online,’ a study on threats to online freedom of expression faced by religious minorities, information practitioners and online media platforms in Pakistan.  

The discussions considered the following three areas linked to the research:

  • Minority perspectives – why the voices of religious minorities in Pakistan are missing from the national media discourse.
  • Media perspectives – how media language could become public interest journalism.
  • Policy perspectives – whether parliament, government and civil society could strengthen participatory democracy through a rights-based, inclusive media discourse for the unheard and the unseen.

The first of two key findings of the study on content analysis of the portrayal of religious minorities by mainstream media found that the overall media coverage of religious minorities in quantum terms is generally low. They are mostly invisible in the dominant media – TV and radio – which carry very little or no coverage. Hindus and Christian communities are the focus of almost all of what little coverage of religious minorities is available while other minorities such as Ahmedis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Kailash, Zoroastrians, etc., get almost no coverage. One-third of coverage about religious minorities is actually not about them and only a reference to them by others.

On the second finding of how religious minorities are represented in the Pakistani media – it transpired that the overall media coverage of religious minorities in qualitative terms is generally stereotypical, linked to sensitive themes such as blasphemy. The minorities are generally painted as victims. Most coverage about them does not even include their views, opinions or perspectives, rendering them voiceless in their own cause. While tonally a significant size of the coverage about religious minorities is inclusive and non-hostile toward them, most news stories and images are about them, not for them or by them. Most coverage is neutral, not sympathetic towards them. Almost all news coverage about religious minorities is reactionary or event-related, rarely stories about them. There are millions of people belonging to minorities and who deserve coverage regardless of their minority status.

Correcting the imbalance
To countenance the challenges to quantitative and qualitative media coverage of religious minorities and to promote greater media professionalisms on the subject, the conference participants agreed on the need for some urgent steps, including, among others:

  • Raising public awareness about the news diversity landscape of Pakistani media and its challenges.
  • Sensitizing media on religious pluralisms and more nuanced coverage of religious minorities.
  • Promoting interface between representatives of religious minorities and media to improve mutual understanding and to curb their stereotyping.
  • Training media and online information practitioners with religious minorities backgrounds on professional approaches to a rights-based civic activism, so that religions minorities are seen and heard more.

Hate speech against religious minorities undermines freedom of expression

The second research study focusing on hate speech and the shrinking space online for religious minorities also brought with it interesting findings and recommendations. these were based on interviews with representatives of statutory and non-statutory human rights commissions, civil liberty campaigners and online information activists.

All these key stakeholders recognized that there was hate speech and general hostility towards religious minorities in both social context and in the online environment in Pakistan. They also agreed that the situation poses a serious threat to civil liberties and free expression in the country in general and for religious minorities in particular. Finally. they agreed that the State and society are failing to adequately recognize hate speech as a problem in policy, in social and online contexts or in the general hostility the state and society exhibit, especially towards religious minorities.

As a way forward to fight online hate speech, participants at teh conference agreed on a three-pronged strategy to combat online hate speech in Pakistan:

  • Develop a course of affirmative action based on collaborative approaches by key stakeholders for protection of vulnerable segments of society, especially religious minorities, with engagement and inputs from religious minorities, statutory and non-statutory commissions, media, journalists and bloggers, rights-based civil society groups, federal and provincial governments and legislatures,prominent rights activists and champions, the legal community, and academia.
  • Adopt a broader strategy of priority actions that includes: advocacy on minorities rights; sensitization of media on portrayal of religious minorities; dialogue among stakeholders on minorities rights; networks and partnerships among key stakeholders; awareness and education against hate speech; promotion of pluralism; and diversity and inclusivity.
  • Establish a network or alliance of online free speech stakeholders that could provide: inputs to policymakers, legal and technical support to victims, a range of strategy and logistical resources, and advocacy strategies for safer online spaces and communities.
  • Lobbying support for better cybercrime control against online hate speech.
  • Outreach to other rights groups and alliances.
  • Identity as representative platform for engagement with the authorities to develop and enforce legal protection measures.
  • Help with safety audits of online media platforms and assist against hacking and blocking.
  • Facilitate peer-to-peer exchange of experience and knowledge.

This holistic approach is necessary in order to deal with the growing threats to religious minorities online and in mainstream society, a common sentiment at the conference. Affirmative action by the state and institutions to provide an enabling environment to all citizens, especially those who are marginalized due to their religion, gender and views, in part of this needed approach.