Can Journalists Trust the U.N. System To Help Control Hate Speech?

Tom Kent

The following article was a speech given by Tom Kent, Standards Editor for The Associated Press, at the The Bali Media Forum 2013.

I’ve certainly been given a challenging topic for this morning: “Can journalists trust the U.N. system?” That is, can the U.N. help create a more tolerant, more secure world by controlling, or helping member states control, hate speech in the news media.

And my focus today is indeed on traditional news media: newspapers and news agencies, radio, television and online news sites. I’ll touch on social media, and platforms like YouTube and Facebook. But my main concern is professional journalistic institutions, how we relate to hate speech and what role, if any, the U.N. should play in how journalists work.

Let me share some of my personal views on the subject, as fodder for further discussion.

Journalists often talk, and rightly so, about how our main job is to cover the news, not to become personally involved in it. But for journalists of good conscience, hate speech is something that alarms us on both a personal and professional level. By its very nature, it distorts the whole idea of reason and balance that stands behind journalism. Ultimately it undermines freedom of expression. There’s also been hate speech against journalists that puts reporters and editors in direct physical danger. So the dangers that come from hate speech are something we care deeply about.

Therefore, we have followed closely the many ways the greater U.N. community has sought to address the hate speech issue. Over the decades, these have included the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide; the Rabat Plan of Action; and of course the work of the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations and the special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

And there has been a natural thirst among many people for hate speech to be addressed in a transnational way, given the way hate now jumps from country to country. When a person can sit on one side of the world and act in a way that causes rioting and death on the other, action at an international level seems at first glance an eminently reasonable way to come to grips with the problem.

And yet. The U.N.’s efforts have often faced the same issues of definitions and intent that have complicated hate speech legislation on the national level.

Should hate speech laws cover blasphemy? Should they be focused mainly on religious and ethnic issues, or also protect gays, lesbians and transsexuals? Is burning a nation’s flag a form of hate speech? What about speech that’s ostensibly reasonable, but contains code words that can trigger violence? Where’s the line between brutal frankness and words that, in the words of Article 20 of the ICCPR, directly incite discrimination, hostility, violence and war? In the words of the final document of the Rabat Plan of Action, “The broader the definition of incitement to hatred is in domestic legislation, the more it opens the door for arbitrary application of these laws.”

These problems could all be solved, of course, by enshrining in international legislation the most restrictive possible view of every form of speech. Suppose we banned anything with any potential for promoting any kind of discrimination and hostility? I think we’d all agree that the so-called heckler’s veto – the right to block any speech that could conceivably offend someone – would effectively gag the discussion of any contentious issue.

The same issues have arisen, of course, in the areas of national hate speech laws. But at least in individual states and regions there is somewhat more unanimity about what should be allowed and what shouldn’t. Some parts of the world, because of their history, are particularly concerned about Nazi propaganda and legislate against that. Elsewhere, incitement of discord among specific ethnic groups tops the agenda.

And even when local laws are established, problems of definition in specific cases remain. Not to mention that sometimes, the very existence of hate speech legislation can create a problem. Such laws can give obscure purveyors of hate speech precisely the attention they crave by making them famous through highly publicized trials.

Amid all these questions of definitions and tactics stands the press. What about regulating hate speech in the media?

Let’s start about being honest about what we’re talking about. Any government regulation implies coercion. Coercion with regard to the press can mean censoring newspapers and websites, fining them or shutting them down. Ultimately, it can mean putting journalists on trial and in jail. That’s the reality of what we’re talking about.

And while legislation on hate speech and the press has its hazards at a national level, at the transnational level it has the additional dangers I’ve mentioned before: sharply different views of what should be prohibited, grounded in strongly held religious, national and press traditions from country to country. Plus all the complications that come from intruding on national sovereignty in the supremely sensitive area of freedom of expression – what Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has called “one of the most precious and fundamental of our rights as human beings.”

In short, there is little to suggest that anyone will benefit from trying to manipulate the world’s enormously diverse hate speech and press legislation to fit a Procrustean bed of transnational desiderata.

Or that a U.N. department or council charged with ongoing monitoring of hate speech in the press would be immune from assertions it had a political or ideological agenda. Such claims have dogged other UN efforts, leading to walkouts, boycotts and suspensions of funding. Such an atmosphere would subordinate the hate speech file to a host of other agendas, ultimately undermining the whole effort.

My personal feeling is that instead of looking at the press as something to be regulated, like carbon emissions or fish stocks, the United Nations should look at the news media as a partner. A partner in advancing the cause of measured, responsible dialogue on controversial subjects. Not as a servant of the state, not as a foot soldier in a campaign run by international organizations, but as an independent, morally driven institution of society that shares a common concern. Similarly, conscientious journalists should look at the U.N. not as a tool to bring our wayward colleagues into line, but as a reference point in our own efforts to advance the ethics of our profession.

Because ending hate speech is not a task that can be simply outsourced to the U.N. or any other government. For one thing, government is often a blunt instrument, subject to whomever comes to power next. But even more important, outsourcing morality to government divests society of a broader responsibility. In the words of Norway’s former minister of foreign affairs, Espen Barth Eide: “Combating hate speech is everyone’s responsibility. It is also everyone’s problem.”

Or as Frank La Rue, the special rapporteur on freedom of expression, puts it: “Of course, the state has a legal obligation, but we as individuals have an ethical responsibility to share the promotion and protection of human rights of everyone.” This ethical responsibility applies to schools, it applies to public officials, it applies to religious and community leaders … and it applies to the news media.

Conscientious journalists believe that coverage of hate speech issues shouldn’t consist simply of repeating it, or quoting an equal amount of hate on the other side. Stories need to analyze what gives rise to hate speech, and to fact-check the claims of haters. Intolerant voices in a community should be balanced by tolerant voices that may exist as well.

We should never grant anonymity to those who speak with hate. At our agency, we don’t allow any anonymous opinion. We should willingly respond to reader complaints and publish corrections where warranted. When someone’s race or religion isn’t relevant to a story, we should leave it out. We should know what people find offensive. We should diversify our own newsrooms to properly reflect our communities and countries.

Most important, hate speech doesn’t always have to be covered. It can be ignored. It is not necessarily newsworthy, and the more offensive it is, the less newsworthy it may be. This is news judgment. Our news agency believes that speech and actions designed simply to provoke and offend are not inherently worthy of coverage, and we should not be a conveyor belt for them. For instance, in some recent cases of intentionally provocative acts designed solely to denigrate Islam and Christianity, we decided to ignore them as much as possible. If some hate action has such an effort that it must be mentioned, this can often be done briefly, in a short text item, and not granted the additional publicity of photos and video.

This approach is born from our own convictions, not forced on us by national or international law. Convictions that what we say, and don’t say, can have a real impact on our societies.

Incidentally, I think that social networks, and the big communications platforms like YouTube and Facebook, are coming to look at their responsibilities in a similar way. The going is tough; the technology gurus who invented these all platforms probably never suspected they would wind up as arbiters of international speech propriety. Clearly, someone will always be trying to transmit hate through these networks. But leading voices on social networks, responsible blogs and the big technology companies are all showing increasing signs of responsibility in this area.

Aidan White of the Ethical Journalism Initiative has emphasized that ”journalism is different from free expression.” Journalism is “constrained expression – you can’t just say what you want to say.” Instead, Aidan says, journalists of good will must be motivated by “cardinal principles,” including truth, independence, impartiality, accountability, and “[showing] humanity” in the way they do their work.

The U.N. community has a right to its own campaigns against hate speech, to expose it for what it is, to stigmatize it, to raise up the responsible part of society in resistance to it. But others in society, including the press, have the right to exercise that privilege, too – to work in their own ways and traditions, protected by their own rights and immunities, in pursuit of a common goal.


Photo: Flickr CC United Nations Photo

Follow Tom Kent on Twitter: @tjrkent