9th January 2017
By Tom Law

Turning the Page of Hate in the Arab World

19-20 December 2016

Hate speech is growing in Arabic language media, according to the participants at a seminar organised by the Ethical Journalism Network, The American University in Cairo (AUC) and Egypt Media Development Programme (EMPD) in Cairo last month.

Hosted by the AUC’s Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, the seminar – the third in a series that have taken place in the last three years – resolved to find new ways to challenge hate speech across all platforms in Arab media.

The meeting reviewed a draft glossary of hate speech terms that has been developed over the last year by graduate students studying at AUC’s journalism department under the guidance of Dr Naila Hamdy.

Dr Hamdy said that the students began by looking at press laws from around the Arab world, as well as international laws. They then looked at examples of hate speech in media to illustrate good and bad practices.

It was agreed that the glossary would be further developed and added to based on the feedback given at the event and that participants from around the region would be invited to add to it in the regional dialects of Arabic.

In the development of the glossary, it was emphasised that when the glossary is launched it must be communicated what it is and what it is not:

  • It is not a list of banned words.
  • It is a reference for journalists to:
  • Find alternatives to words that in some contexts can incite violence

  • Provide examples of good and bad practice when it comes to reporting hate speech such as ISIS propaganda

  • Raise awareness of the need to use tools such as the EJN’s five-point test for hate speech and the values of ethical journalism.

The seminar also resolved to explore innovative ways to make the glossary accessible and useful for working journalists as well as media development and media literacy efforts.

AUC and JMI form partnership to monitor hate speech

Another key outcome from the meeting was that The American University in Cairo Department of Journalism and Mass Communication and the Jordan Media Institute will begin working together to monitor hate speech in Arab media.

The meeting recognised that some legal definitions define hate speech only as when someone has shown intent to cause violence, whereas others define hate speech as the likelihood to cause violence.

Hate speech and freedom of expression

Hate speech, when it is not properly defined, can also be used by autocratic leaders who use fears over hate speech to persecute people accused of insulting prominent political figures or institutions.

The EJN Director Aidan White told the meeting that there were no cultural values that distort the universal core values of journalism and that this argument is often used as a glib excuse by those trying to muzzle the press.

There is something to the effect of enshrining freedom of expression in most Arab constitutions, as well as freedom of artistic expression. However, they all leave a backdoor open to impose penalties, such as penal codes that include statutes against insulting religion.

In many countries, the values of journalism can send you straight to jail if you insist on them. It was noted that in the Arab world it is common to file a court case against an individual, rather than responding and entering a dialogue, as they know that their opponent may end up bogged down in the courts or even in jail.

Sometimes, phrases that are defined as hate speech may even undermine efforts to address the phenomenon as a whole. For example, in Egypt hate speech is sometimes defined to include “insulting the symbol of the nation”. But is that the same as insulting the nation? The flag? Religious institutions? Who determines this?

This ambiguity, the seminar concluded, leaves citizens and journalists unclear about where the state has drawn red lines on freedom of expression.

Hate speech and attacks on freedom of speech are by no means just a problem for the Arab world.

The President-Elect of the United States, Donald Trump’s, recent tweet threatening citizens who burn the US flag could have been written by any of the region’s autocratic leaders and is a clear warning of the possible upcoming threats around freedom of expression in the West.

The question many journalists and academics in the Arab world are asking is not “can we burn the flag”, the answer to which is “no we can’t”. Instead, a more unresolved question for many societies is “who decides where that line is?”

The argument for self-censorship

Several talk show hosts in Egypt who have practiced professional value-based ethical journalism are now off the air. According to the Arab Human Rights Network, there might be up to 60 journalists currently detained in Egypt. Reporters Without Borders ranks Egypt in the top five countries for imprisoning journalists worldwide.

But is this the time for journalists to be speaking out in Egypt? Perhaps there is an argument for self-censorship in times of such uncertainty?

With that in mind, the seminar resolved that the Arab Media Hub against hate speech should focus on media literacy and dialogue rather than a more aggressive stance. It was recognised that while some broadcasters do not act out of ignorance, many journalists would be open to constructive dialogue on the issue