Addressing hate speech in African digital media

Thursday, April 23, 2015
Across Africa in recent years, cycles of xenophobia, ethnic hatred, and homophobia have sometimes degenerated into deadly spasms of violence.

On many occasions, the dissemination of unfiltered incendiary messages on digital media and social media platforms allows hateful messages to become more widespread—and quickly.

The deadly xenophobic violence in South Africa in recent weeks highlights the urgency of limiting hate speech in the digital age.

This violent flare up reflects an alarming global trend. In January 2015, the United Nations issued a report, which noted that “hate speech and incitement to hatred are on the rise in many countries across all continents, and these hateful messages are frequently transmitted through traditional media and the Internet.”

Addressing hate speech often begins with regulation. While there is no universal consensus on a definition of hate speech, international norms suggest that only speech uttered with malicious intent to harm, denigrate, or dehumanise should be unlawful.

In 2013, the UN launched the Rabat Plan of Action to promote guidelines to balance restrictions against hate speech with preserving freedom of the press and expression. This still leaves each society and culture to determine what it deems offensive, incendiary, or dangerous (i.e. messages that directly or indirectly incite to violence).

Ambiguous hate speech legislation in the majority of African nations has frequently led to unjust censoring of commentary that falls short of the international norms of hate speech.

Beyond regulation, it is important to understand the conditions that can make media a fertile ground for hate speech. A significant circumstance is when narrow political interests control the media, as in Rwanda before the 1994 genocide.Rwanda’s pre-genocide constitution formally banned all forms of hate and discrimination. Yet, Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines (RTLMC) which enjoyed the backing of the regime in power dehumanised Tutsis with total impunity.

Today, proponents of strict press control frequently cite RTLMC as examples of the danger of too much media freedom.This idea, however, is a red herring when you consider that RTLMC was neither free nor independent, but rather official propaganda outlets.

Unfortunately, the danger of African press as a propaganda tool is still present across Africa, given the financial uncertainty of the media. Paying for news is still a luxury for the majority of ordinary Africans, despite reports of a growing middle class on the continent.

As a result, the overwhelming majority of media outlets, large and small, are under resourced and unable to make profits from copy sales or subscriptions.

Consequently, media managers overly depend on advertising or financial patronage from government agencies, powerful politicians, and private companies. These elites represent narrow interests and their economic influence over news outlets lead to the erosion of editorial independence.

These dynamics leave media managers vulnerable to co-option by anyone with power, deep pockets, and a desire to propagate a particular political agenda, however narrow and hateful.

In this virtual context, the best way to combat hate speech is with more speech. As these online debates rage, the value of ethical and independent journalists and media outlets has never been more important.

Guest editorial

“This world of ours... must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower