Countering hate speech - beyond Courts of Law | Daily News

Countering hate speech - beyond Courts of Law

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights assessing the progress made by Sri Lanka during the past four years on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights, says in their report:

“The recurrence of incidents of intercommunal violence, the extensive use of social media to spread misinformation and nurture myths against other minor communities and the use of hate speech to escalate small local incidents into communal confrontation combine to form a very dangerous pattern that must be closely watched.”

Hate speech adversely affects and undermines the right of the targeted person or the group of persons. It denies them their right to equality and freedom from discrimination. And, the worst part is, when left unattended, hate speech will gradually lead to horrendous disaster. Firstly, it will promote prejudice and hate. Secondly, with the passing time, it will begin to undermine the roots of society. Thirdly, it will create a divide between societal groups and eventually lead to deep divides beyond repair.

Nazi Germany is one classic example. The former Yugoslavia is another. In both cases hatred was spawn against minority groups which escalated to national conflicts and finally lead to mass murder. The genocide in Rwanda is also an example of the effect and consequences of hate speech. In Sri Lanka, too, we have experienced the same phenomenon in 1958 and 1983. In the second case, it developed into a 30-year old deadly internal war.

At international level, most nations have already realised how powerful hate speech will be on erosion of national reconciliation of a country. Most of them have taken steps to combat hate speech, both legally and otherwise.

ICCPR Act

In Sri Lanka, much has been spoken and written about hate speech and in 2007 we adopted the ICCPR Act into the Constitution, to protect communities against racial and religious biases/discrimination and hate speech.

Clause 3 (1) of the Act says that no person shall propagate war or advocate national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. According to clause 3 (2) Every person who - (a) attempts to commit, (b) aids or abets in the commission of; or (c) threatens to commit, an offence referred to in subsection (1), shall be guilty of an offence under this Act.

Clause 3 (3) says that a person found guilty of committing an offence under subsection (1) or subsection (2) of this section shall on conviction by the High Court, be punished with rigorous imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years.

These and other provisions of the ICCPR Act along with the penal code actually provide quite extensive legislative resources towards hate speech. Many legal experts believe what is needed is strictly enforcing the existing legislation and not attempt to introduce new legislation, which takes time.

Even President of Bar Association of Sri Lanka, Kalinga Indatissa speaking at public seminar conducted by the BASL said that if authorities want to seriously curtail hate speech, it can be done under Section 3 of the ICCPR Act and Act No. 14 of 1995 (the Evidence Ordinance).

However, the Government officials have confirmed that they are going ahead with amendments. These amendments to Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure will allow to impose on a person convicted of such offence a fine up to Rs.one million or to a maximum five-year term of imprisonment or both.

Unfortunately, taking a legal course of action towards hate speech is now considered as a part of the solution. It is something like pyrrhic victory, meaning a victory gained at too great a cost. When responding to hate speech, advanced countries do not limit themselves to legal action, sanctions and prohibitions. They have realised that this approach is often counter-productive, as it fails to address the underlying social roots of the kinds of prejudice that drive hate speech.

Also, in the long term, it may result in the violation of international standards on freedom of expression and undermine the protection of equality. In most instances, hate speech can be better countered through positive measures, which increase understanding and tolerance, create spaces for inclusive dialogue, and promote intercultural cooperation.

However, all such measures need to be based on, and supported by, a firm commitment to respect human rights. Most important of all, all measures taken should foster participation from all quarters of society. It is through these practical and positive policy measures that we can increase inter-group communication and trust, and change hearts and minds to address the root causes of hate speech.

Article 19

Article 19 is a British human rights organization, internationally positioned, with a specific mandate and focus on the defence and promotion of freedom of expression and freedom of information worldwide. The organisation monitors threats to free expression around the globe; lobbies governments to adopt laws that conform to international standards of freedom of expression; and drafts legal standards that strengthen media, public broadcasting, free expression, and access to government-held information.

This organisation issued a report last year titled – “Responding to hate speech with positive measures: A case study from six EU countries.” The report offers an overview of positive measures which each country should take to respond to hate speech. Sri Lanka also can take its cue from the report.

Aside from measures to criminalise incitement, the report stipulates that countries should:

(a) Create collaborative networks to build mutual understanding, promote dialogue, and inspire constructive action in various fields;

(b) Create a mechanism within government to identify and address potential areas of tension between members of different religious and racial communities, and assist with conflict prevention and mediation;

(c) Train government officials in effective outreach strategies;

(d) Encourage efforts by (provincial) leaders to discuss within their communities the causes of discrimination, and evolve strategies to counter them;

(e) Speak out against intolerance, including advocacy of religious and racial hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence;

(f) Combat denigration and negative religious stereotyping, as well as incitement to religious hatred, including through education and awareness building;

(g) Recognise that the open, constructive, and respectful debate of ideas plays a positive role in combating religious hatred, incitement, and violence

Political role

Article 19 has long insisted that public officials, including politicians, have a key role to play in recognising and promptly speaking out against intolerance and discrimination, including instances of hate speech. This requires recognising and rejecting the conduct itself, as well as expressing sympathy and support to the targeted individuals or groups, and framing such incidents as harmful to the whole of society.

These interventions are particularly important where inter-racial or inter-communal tensions are susceptible to escalation. And also, where political stakes are high, such as in the run-up to a major election or economic upheaval.

Article 19 suggests certain actions to be taken, which include:

(a) Carefully examining the circumstances in which counter-speech by politicians and public officials is most effective. Condemnations of hate speech may be insufficient if public officials or politicians fail to substantively engage with the underlying anxieties and misperceptions that render parts of the public susceptible to hate speech.

(b) Responses by public officials or politicians should therefore should go beyond denunciation and legal action to provide persuasive counter-narratives. Counter-narrative refers to the messages that arise from the vantage point of those who have been victimised. The term “counter”- itself implies a space of resistance against traditional majority domination. A counter-narrative goes beyond the notion that those in relative positions of power can just tell the “stories” of their own.

Instead, these must come from the victimised, from the perspectives and voices of those individuals. The effect of a counter-narrative is to empower and give strength to those victimised communities. By choosing their own words and telling their own stories, members of marginalized communities provide alternative points of view, helping to create narratives truly presenting their realities.

(c) Encouraging broader dialogue to counter intolerance and discrimination. An effective intervention from politicians and public officials can play an important preventative role and guard against escalating tensions, deterring others from engaging in similar conduct. These figures can also play an important role in opening space for counter-speech by others, in particular those who are themselves targeted by the ‘hate speech,’ as well as sympathetic allies, including the silent majority.

We need to treat hate speech as we treat every malicious act: by condemning it, refusing to amplify it, countering it with the truth, and encouraging the perpetrators to change their behaviour. Government, civil society, the private sector and the media all have important roles to play. Political and religious leaders have a special responsibility to promote peaceful coexistence. Hatred is a danger to everyone – and so fighting it must be a responsibility for everyone.


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