In extreme cases, a culture may have so demeaned or dehumanised a particular community that hate speech against it sounds normal and unobjectionable to many people, including journalists. This is the situation in Myanmar, where many ethnic Burmans have deep prejudices against Muslims, especially the Rohingya. “Tragically, the Rohingya and some other Muslim groups are dehumanised to the extent that even horrific crimes against them fail to generate public or official sympathy,” says Nicholas Farrelly of the Australian National University’s Myanmar Research Centre.
This has parallels with homophobia and the extreme bias against transgender people in some parts of the world. That these attitudes can turn deadly was demonstrated in the shooting rampage in Florida at an Orlando gay nightclub in June 2016, which killed 49. That spawned further hate speech, with religious leaders and other commentators stating that the victims got what they deserved.
In the many countries where homosexuality is illegal, such as Indonesia, Iran and Uganda, media often prey on prejudice and ignorance by agitating against the LGBT community. In Uganda in 2014, the day after a harsh anti-gay law was enacted, one tabloid newspaper published a list of what it called the nation’s 200 top homosexuals. “Ugandan journalists say they are just reflecting the sentiment of the society they cover and the laws under which they work,” according to Al Jazeera’s media watch programme, The Listening Post.
Hate speech against religious groups is a particularly complex problem, because religious communities define themselves by a set of beliefs and beliefs are fair game for criticism and insult. There is therefore a tension — some would say a fatal contradiction — between the need to protect against incitement while allowing beliefs to be pilloried.
Some of the most fraught debates over offensive speech are due to this tension. When cartoons or videos depict Islam as a murderous religion, governments and internet intermediaries declare that they cannot legitimately restrict such expression, because an attack on a belief system does not technically amount to a call to arms against its believers. Many at the receiving end, however, maintain that such denigration of their religion is part of a broad ideological assault that makes it harder for them to live as equals in their society.
In any case, a legal right to insult religions does not preclude journalists deciding, on ethical grounds, to refrain from wanton attacks on values and beliefs. Political cartoonist Garry Trudeau suggests media should take people’s power into account when making such decisions. Reflecting on the controversy over satirical depictions of the Prophet Mohammed in Europe, Trudeau said in an essay in The Atlantic: “Traditionally, satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable. Satire punches up against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful … Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny — it’s just mean.”
While journalists may agree in principle, however, there would still be disagreements over implementation. Muslim immigrants in Europe are a vulnerable minority when viewed at the national level, but they are simultaneously members of a world religion with tremendous power to shape world affairs. Media’s ethical responses will differ depending on which of these two frames apply.
Extreme nationalism hatred is often overlooked in discussions of hate speech, perhaps because intense and exclusive loyalty to the nation — patriotism — tends to be seen as a virtue in a way that similar sentiments about race or religion are not. Yet, nationalistic hate speech in East Asia, for example, poses a threat to world peace. China’s state-run media, aided by online media, regularly incite hatred against Japan with alarming headlines and half-truths. Right-wing media in Japan reciprocate with China-bashing, although their influence is diluted by Japan’s more open media environment.
Also worth pondering is how to reflect the grievances of citizens who are drawn to hate campaigns. They may have legitimate concerns about the economic and cultural cost of immigration. Immigration policy deserves vigorous discussion, even as immigrants are shielded from bigotry. Similarly, protecting Muslim minorities from discrimination should not preclude debates over the real problem of intolerance and militancy gaining ground within many Muslim communities.
Hate speech is a constantly evolving phenomenon, with new perpetrators, targets and tactics. One noteworthy development, particularly in the West, is the rise of left-wing intolerance among segments of the political spectrum previously thought of as open-minded and progressive. Their attempts to censor offensive speech on campuses are ostensibly intended to create safe spaces for victimised and disadvantaged groups. But some of their campaigns also smack of political opportunism, milking indignation to advance more self-serving organisational objectives. The backlash from the right includes charges of “political correctness” run amok and perhaps greater resistance to discussing the harm of hate speech.
Another worrying trend is vilification of the media. Individual journalists have always faced personal attacks. In the US election campaign, however, Donald Trump whipped up a broader assault on the media in general. This trend had already been observed in Europe, where extreme right-wing groups have cultivated hatred towards the mainstream press, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
One of the most pernicious and under-discussed aspects of hate speech is that potent hate campaigns are not limited to racist rants or banners. They instead involve a sophisticated effort across a networked movement. Extreme expression is only part of its arsenal and not necessarily the most effective weapon. Psychologists and sociologists tell us that messages are more persuasive when they enter minds when their guard is down. Journalists need to be vigilant not only against obviously toxic speech, but also hate propaganda couched in pseudoscientific terms and reasonable discourse. In France, for example, National Front leader Marine Le Pen has assiduously sanitised her party’s rhetoric to make her anti-immigrant positions sound more respectable.
If journalists are to help counter propaganda, therefore, bringing in policies to deal with flagrant hate speech is just the first step. The media also need to help uncover connections between elements that make up a modern hate campaign. Much of this needs traditional investigative journalism: tracing the flows of money and power, and figuring out who benefits by instigating hatred, discrimination and violence.
Reporting on extreme far-right groups can be as risky as covering the criminal underworld, notes a Committee to Protect Journalists report. Like covering crime, corruption and the abuse of political power, covering hate campaigns calls on journalism’s highest principles and deepest skills.