The Dilemma of ‘Free Speech’, ‘Hate Speech’, and ‘Threatening Speech’
MQM seems to be in the limelight of national and international media, recently. Over the past few months, the London-based Metropolitan Police and Scotland Yard have expedited the investigations of the murder of Dr.Imran Farooq, incitement to violence by MQM leader, Altaf Hussain, and a related money laundering case that also involved Serious and Organized Crime Agency (SOCA), one of the UK’s major policing organisations. It is too early to predict the outcome of these investigations, of course, but this entire episode has created serious difficulties to the second-tier MQM leadership based in Karachi. On one hand, they have to take a careful stance on the investigation underway against their leader, and on the other hand, they have to defend a series of rather ‘irresponsible’ statements made by Mr.Altaf Hussain.
Mr. Hussain set up a new trend in the Pakistan’s political arena when he started addressing his thousands of workers and supporters in Karachi not from a political podium, but over the telephone – after he fled the country to the UK in 1992. His controversial telephonic addresses contain a mix of light entertainment (he sings songs, re-enacts movie dialogue, and so on), as well as discussion around some serious national issues. Mr. Hussain has been rather careless during his telephonic addresses and live interviews on the media – it is clear that he misses the difference between what constitutes free speech and hate speech.
Following the recent election in May 2013, Mr. Hussain surprised the whole world by his blatant and violent threats to the peaceful protestors against the election’s result. On 16 May 2013, he broadcast a live call to almost every TV channel in Pakistan. The BBC quoted his threats in these words:
‘Those people who are protesting – and grandstanding – near Three Swords – I don’t want to fight or quarrel, but if I order my supporters now, they will go to Three Swords and turn them into a reality.’
It seems that people may have listened to him, as well, although of course we should not suggest that there is a direct link: a senior political figure of the rival political party was assassinated in Karachi soon after these threats. This was not the first time that Mr. Hussain has irresponsibly engaged his ‘free speech’ in this way. Towards the end of last year, he directly threatened the judges of Pakistan, as reported by GEO News:
“The Judges and the bench who gave the remark against MQM (for voters verification and delimitation), I (Altaf Hussain) warn them that they will be eliminated if they don’t take back their remarks.”
The above statements are only a small sample of a long, long, pattern in Hussain’s rhetoric, one which has crossed a number of mediums which he frequently used various mediums to promote his hateful narratives. He even went one step further, letting down millions of Pakistanis around the world when on an event in India, he suggested cried out loud saying that ‘ the creation of “Pakistan was the biggest blunder in the history of mankind ..”
Whenever the MQM leadership is asked about to explain the origins of these rather provocative statements by their leader, they usually reply that his remarks are taken ‘out of context’. In order to understand what he truly meant, they claim, the critic needs to try to listen to the entire speech, and appreciate the background in which he had to take that aggressive stance to put across the message. Perhaps this might have been convincing the first few times, but it is an argument that is beginning to wear fairly thin..
Most recently, the UK Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg has commented that the UK needs to analyse the borderline between free speech and hate speech very carefully before taking any action on the statements of Mr. Hussain. Britain does indeed specific laws in place against hate speech and ‘public order offences’, that may incite violence against an individual or group, but at the same the country tries to ensure that everyone enjoys the same freedom of expression, and liberty to express their thoughts.
As far as the matter of Mr. Altaf Hussain is concerned, this is up to the judgment of the relevant authorities. It is their call to analyse whether or not he has crossed the line of free speech or not. To an ordinary bystander, however, it is not very difficult to see that some of the statements of Mr. Hussain are fairly vile screeds that clearly incite violence, encouraging his supporters to attack rival political groups, and generally promote narratives of hatred. Given the contemporary circumstances of Karachi – where targeted killing of common people by party-affiliated militia is a routine occurrence -, such irresponsible statements from the head of a political party are certainly not helpful – no matter what the context of those statements are …