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18 December 2018 | Updated on 26 January 2024

“It all started with a malicious Facebook post. Photographs of venerated figures – two Hindu kings of medieval India, and a recently departed demagogue of a Hindu right-wing political party, were morphed to show them in an apparently ‘derogatory’ manner, and widely circulated over social media. As if on cue, the moment they went viral, hundreds of supporters of far right Hindu organisations took to the streets, baying for the offenders’ blood.”  Saurav Datta, “India: Communal violence in the times of social media", Al Jazeera.

Expression online, discrimination against individuals, communities, critics and others on the grounds of religion and the use of political, legal and extra-judicial tools by the state to suppress free speech with impunity, go hand in hand with alarming levels of violence in Asia, as revealed in APC's publication “Let the mob do the job: How proponents of hatred are threatening freedom of expression and religion online in Asia” from 2017.

The "Challenging hate narratives and violations of freedom of religion and expression online in Asia" (Challenge) project, funded by the European Instrument For Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), builds on the previous analysis and seeks to focus on two broad areas:

  • Protecting and promoting respect for freedom of religion and expression on the internet, by generating discourse that defends secular opinions touching upon religion.

  • Understanding and countering hate speech online, by generating narratives and discourse that defend diverse opinions.

The three-year project will focus on five countries in South and Southeast Asia: Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Myanmar and Pakistan, characterised by the presence of majority religious communities and challenges for secularists and minorities. 

Why this initiative is more necessary than ever

The right to freedom of religion or belief needs other human rights to be fully exercised, among them, the right to freedom of expression offline and online. With the rise of right-wing populist governments and discourses across Asia, we are witnessing more incidents of violence committed in the name of defending religions or faiths, often by vigilante groups who are protected by problematic laws and political elites with vested interests. The impunity with which these attacks take place can also encourage others to politicise religion for their own agendas and interests. A significant trend has been the use of blasphemy or the insult of religion as justification for violent attacks on individuals and groups who express views that do not conform to the prevailing norms and beliefs, seen in countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar and Pakistan.

The internet has also become a tool to mobilise hatred and mob attacks because of the ease with which messages can be manipulated and shared instantly and widely. Those wishing to push back or promote diverse ideologies experience challenges when faced with well-resourced and coordinated groups representing establishment politics or institutions. 

The consequences of the violations mentioned above range from the exclusion of certain segments of the population from public spheres or debates, to legal threats and worse still, attacks on one’s life. 

Social movements have also begun to counter the negative effects of such illiberal forces, although civil society groups are still in need of resources, skills and support to effectively respond to hate speech online. It is also becoming increasingly critical for a more proactive response from the private sector, which owns many of the digital platforms that have become sites for serious contestations and provocation.

The domain of change

By the end of this initiative, we expect to have significantly contributed to enabling individuals and civil society organisations in the region to freely and safely express their opinions without fear of repercussions on the basis of religion or religious sensitivities, and to generate counter speech in instances where hate speech is propagated. The project's objectives are:

  • To increase the availability of knowledge about trends, challenges and opportunities related to the exercise of freedom of religion and expression in the two sub-regions.

  • To build awareness and knowledge among target groups in the five countries on the violation of freedom of religion and expression online, including how intolerance and hate can affect individuals emotionally and psychologically.

  • To build the capacity of individuals and civil society organisations in South and Southeast Asia to counter hate speech online.

  • To generate creative, artistic and critical content that promotes discourses and narratives that are secular, diverse, inclusive and rights-respecting on issues relating to religion.

  • To build new, and strengthen existing, networks of individuals and civil society and leverage strategic linkages to advocate for policy changes related to freedom of expression and religion online nationally, regionally and globally.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights will be an important standard, especially in the context of engaging social media companies and other intermediaries to adhere to international human rights law and standards when taking down content related to hate speech or offering remedies.

How we will contribute to this change

The Challenge project will be implemented by APC in partnership with organisations in the region.

APC and its partners will contribute to the efforts made by movements pushing back against hate speech, through:

  • Conducting in-depth research on thematic areas related to freedom of expression and religion online.

  • Building the capacity of civil society in South and Southeast Asia to effectively counter hate speech online.

  • Generating creative, artistic and critical content that promotes discourses and narratives that are secular, diverse, inclusive and rights-respecting on issues relating to religion. 

  • Advocating for policy change at national, regional and international levels.

APC and its partners will work with a wide range of individuals such as freedom of expression activists, media rights activists, religion rights and interfaith activists, women’s rights activists, feminists and sexual rights activists who speak up against religious discrimination and are targets of hate speech because of their gender identity, artists, including writers, novelists, poets, painters, musicians, actors, cartoonists and comedians, editors and journalists from selected media outlets, internet users who are influential over various social media platforms and also users who are targeted for their comments and expression online.

In a second place, we will work with legislators, internet service providers and intermediaries, human rights lawyers, and regional and international human rights bodies and mechanisms. 

Express Your Challenge grants

The project includes provision of grants to individuals and civil society groups to carry out research, capacity building, developing creative content, campaigns and advocacy in the countries of focus. More information about these grants is available here.


Image: Tim Olson in Flickr used under Creative Commons licence. 


Translation into Japanese courtesy of APC member JCA-NET.