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Pakistan Aims to Fight Hate Speech Through Smartphone App

WASHINGTON – Pakistan has recently launched a smartphone application that will allow its citizens to anonymously report extremist, radical or sectarian-based hate content to the relevant authorities.

The app named Chaukas (vigilant) is created by the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA), a government body responsible for devising counterterrorism strategies, and is available on both Android and iOS systems.

Chaukas was developed under NACTA’s larger Tat’heer (to sanitize) online portal that was launched last year and is aimed at combating cyberextremism and hate content in the country.

Through Chaukas, users can anonymously report hate content in their surroundings or on the internet that will be forwarded to relevant law enforcement agencies. The content may include web links, audio clips,pictures and videos of any hate-generating banners, pamphlets, public gatherings, speeches or meetings.

Pakistan’s Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal officially launched Chaukas at NACTA headquarters in Islamabad last week.

NACTA officials say Chaukas is part of the National Action Plan that clearly indicates the government should not allow extremist elements to use the internet or social media as a propaganda tool.

“We are constantly developing online portals to chalk out the radical content. It’s absolutely necessary to overcome the massive challenge of extremism online and on ground that has plagued the country for over a decade now,” Ehsan Ghani, NACTA’s director told VOA.

“Any hate-related material found online or in your surroundings can be reported through Chaukas. You can send a picture or video of elements promoting hatred among different sections of society anonymously.”

Ghani believes the newly developed user-friendly app will help citizens stay vigilant and identify hate material in any form.

“Our aim is to create awareness, to have eyes in web-space and also on the ground to identify the elements spreading hatred in any form.”

Several extremist, sectarian and radical groups with huge followings continue to operate freely on social media and the internet, despite the country’s cybercrime laws. They also use public gatherings as a means to spread their hate-based agenda.

According to an investigative report published in the English daily Dawn in 2017, 41 out of 64 banned terror groups, such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, Siphah-i-Sahaba and Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, operate freely on the internet. They have hundreds of social media pages with millions of followers, mostly in the Urdu language, that is regularly updated with audio clips and videos.

Digital expert Nighat Dad, executive director of the Digital Rights Foundation, a Pakistani nongovernmental organization that helps people cope with online abuse, said cyberextremism or extremists spreading hate through different online and offline channels is a global threat.

While applauding NACTA’s efforts Dad is wary of the law under which the app was created. She pointed out that “Chaukas” doesn’t define hate speech, and in a country like Pakistan, where radical and sectarian-based elements use hatred as a tool to expand their following, the inability to define hate content can have consequences.

“The definition of hate speech isn’t provided, and the app says the information will be forwarded to the law-enforcement agencies, but what exactly will be the process is not mentioned in the app. What constitutes hate speech? It’s such a massive topic, and it’s ambiguous and very subjective also,” Dad told VOA.

Dad also said the app has some major glitches.

“The app doesn’t offer any privacy policy or data protection, despite the claims. There is no option for complainants to remove their profile from the database. So, anyone can have access to your information through your phone number. It’s scary,” Dad said.

Security experts in Pakistan agree with Dad’s stance, but they still believe Chaukas is a step in the right direction, which will eventually help and train the nation to identify hate content.

“Chaukas, or NACTA’s Tat’heer program, is an appreciable effort that will help to create awareness among people through community participation. Sometimes, people fall victim to extremist ideologies without even realizing it,” said Rasul Baksh Raees, a Pakistan-based analyst. “It is, however, a time-taking process, and one should not expect dramatic results in a short span of time.”

According to Pakistan Telecommunications Authority’s estimate, around 51 million people out of a population of 190 million have access to the internet, and young people are a large portion of the people using the internet.

“With a growing number of people having access to the internet, it is absolutely necessary to have measures that will help the nation to stay vigilant and also help the security agencies in countering misconstrued religious beliefs and extremist elements in the country,” Raees told VOA.

This story was originally posted on VOA News (Extremism Watch Desk).

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