Facebook, hate speech and policy faultlines

Politicians in Europe and India are falling foul of expectations relating to ‘hate speech’.

'Black Pete,' part of Dutch Christmas festivities, is an example of a conflicting view of what causes offense [EPA]

On International Human Rights Day, December 10, Al Jazeera’s human rights department held a conference on the “Role of Media in Combating Hate Speech and Discrimination”. International guests from UNESCO and the UN human rights training centre for Southwest Asia and the Arab region were among the speakers.

The document used to frame debates and workshops for the one-day seminar was the Rabat Plan of Action, launched in 2012 by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Named after the Moroccan city in which it was launched, the Rabat Plan has sought to provide international bodies, governments and media organisations with strategies to prevent incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence.

The conference comes in a week in which government ministers in Europe and India have faced accusations of discriminatory speech and policies.

On December 8, in Geneva, UN experts issued a call to Swedish government officials to do more to end discrimination against people of African descent.

The illegitimate class

The strongly worded appeal was launched by the Working Group of Experts of People of African Descent. The group visited Stockholm, Malmo and Lund in the first week of December, concluding: “For a country that has been perceived as having a long tradition of tolerance and openness, the relative silence around racism and racial discrimination is surprising and worrying.”

Sweden is facing “a heightened prevalence of xenophobic and racist attitudes against migrants and refugee communities despite the government’s best efforts to counter racial hate” according to the appeal.

In India, Sadvi Niranjan Jyoti, union minister for the food processing industries, asked voters on November 30, to decide “whether you want a government born of Ram, or those born illegitimately”, at a public rally for the governing Rharatiya Janata Party. As a result, the upper (legislative) house of the Indian parliament called a special session which was then suspended due to what one newspaper described as “pandemonium”.

Concerns related to the use of words in political circles, which may fall beneath recognised standards of political life are further challenged when politicians use social media platforms.

This summer, a member of France’s National Front party, Anne-Sophie Leclere, posted a photo of the justice minister on Facebook. French Guainan-born Christiane Taubira’s photo appeared alongside that of a monkey and the words “I prefer to see her swinging in a tree than to see her in government”.


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34-year-old mother-of-three, Leclere was convicted by a court in the overseas territory of Cayenne, French Guiana, of hate speech, receiving a nine-month prison sentence and a 50,000 euro ($62,000) fine and was subsequently expelled from the party.

Between monitoring and control

At the Doha conference, Dr Abdulsalam Said Ahmad, representative of the high commissioner for human rights for the Middle East and North Africa, talked of the uneasy relationship between governmental monitoring of offensive, inciteful rhetoric and the protection of free speech.

“We are all aware of the growth in hate speech which leads to the growth in violence particularly in the past 10 years. Media channels and outlets are the channels through which such speech is exercised, be it traditional or social networking platforms. Within this framework the question arises – what are the limits between freedom of speech and combating hate speech and discrimination? This is the great challenge.”

Barbara Trionfi, deputy executive director of the International Press Institute, told Al Jazeera, “A French report showed that these are not isolated cases but are interlinked. Saying ‘it won’t have any consequences,’ or that it’s ‘just the youth’ is incorrect, these phrases often originate from a political discourse and a statement by a politician.”

In the same month in which Leclere faced prosecution for her online comments, a newly elected UK councillor and member of the UK Independence Party (Ukip) made a post on Facebook, referring to gay people as “perverts” and African immigrants as “scroungers.” Dave Small, then borough councillor for Redditch, wrote another post, in which he spoke of: “our sworn enemies in the Muslim world”. Unlike Leclere, Small faced no criminal charges, resigning from his post as councillor six days after the media brought attention to the remarks. UKIP expelled him from the party.

His tribe is ‘best at that’

In Doha, Eric Chinje, CEO of the African media initiative, told Al Jazeera of research being carried out into the roots and the current incidence of hate speech across the continent. His organisaton is compiling a comprehensive report into the reasons and effects of infalammatory speech and its reporting. He says the  campaign is “already producing some amazing findings”. 

“Ignorance is a major factor. It’s amazing how ignorant the media [in Africa] can be as to what constitutes hate speech. A recent case was a headline in a leading paper on the continent, concerning homosexuality. The paper was actually reporing on a senior politician calling for the lynching of a couple of young people.”

The style of reporting, is vital, Chinje found, in inflammatory situations, as it may lead to dangerous, even violent after-effects, for the communities involved. He asked the editor of the lynching piece “Are you conscious of the impact of what you have just done?’ Clearly he was not”.

Chinje gives another example of a headline stating that a man was awarded a job because “his ‘tribe is best at that kind of thing’. At no point was the impact of that on ethnic discourse considered,” he says.

Among the key factors put forward in the Rabat Plan of Action are the collective responsibility of public officials, religious and community leaders, the media and individuals, to prevent incitement to hatred.

In France, National Front lawyer Wallerand de Saint Just, said the FN would appeal its fine.

In India, Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti has continued to reject calls for her resignation.

Source: Al Jazeera