8th April 2014
By Stefanie Chernow

Towards an African Campaign for Tolerance in Journalism

Aidan White

Media professionals in Africa know only too well the threats people face when journalists become propagandists and when media become megaphones for hate speech.

The 100 days of genocidal killing in Rwanda from April 7 to mid-July 1994, in which between half a million and a million people died, has left an indelible mark upon Africa. It was slaughter in which propaganda and media played a pivotal role.

Radio Mille Collines, which played a strategic role in organizing the killing, became a notorious global symbol of how media can be used to incite hate and violence.

In the years since the Rwandan genocide journalists African continue to find themselves in the front line of many violent struggles between communities, often based upon racial or religious intolerance.

Hate speech in the Kenyan media was blamed for contributing to the violence that followed the presidential election of December 2007. More than 1,100 people were killed and 650,000 others were displaced after the disputed results triggered ethnic violence.

In other struggles and conflicts – in Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, South Africa, Egypt, for instance – media are often enlisted as foot-soldiers on behalf of one side or another. The issues may be ethnic, religious, political, tribal or targeting of migrants, but whenever this happens the ethical base of journalism is destroyed.

The same challenges face journalists in many other parts of the world. But everywhere it is often vulnerable and marginalized groups that suffer most. To limit the potential for hatred and violence media have a special responsibility to avoid sensationalism and to exercise care when reporting inflammatory political speech that targets minorities or different groups.

In Africa the crisis is deeply felt. The instability caused by community conflict undermines social progress and hinders economic development. Intolerance at all levels is a major obstacle to building a culture of peace and lifting millions of people out of poverty.

That is why 20 years after the horrors of Rwanda, African journalists and media are launching a new campaign called Turning the Page of Hate which aims to strengthen the craft of journalism and to promote more tolerant public discourse.

This campaign is built upon the knowledge that media have the potential to inspire public confidence. They can play a major role in creating informed, peaceful and secure democracies. But that will not happen unless journalists are ethical and well informed in their work and unless media enjoy editorial independence and the right to report freely.

A key threat to good journalism is the scourge of political interference and corruption. Journalists must not allow themselves to be carried away by politics. They need to recognize that their professional duty is to a wider audience.

This new campaign is focused on the notion that journalism is a craft motivated by humanity. It has public purpose – to do no harm. But that does not mean journalists should ever sacrifice their independence to any cause, no matter how worthy it may seem to others. By respecting the core ethics of their profession, journalists can do good work and contribute to understanding between communities.

The ethical obligations of journalism – to be accurate, to be impartial, to be independent, to show humanity, to be responsible and to correct mistakes — are self-imposed constraints that make journalism a distinct and different form of free expression.

Unlike many who blog or use social networks, journalists cannot say what they want, when they want and how they want. Part of this self-restraint is to avoid casual and dangerous forms of discrimination and prejudice and, particularly, hate speech. But to do that effectively journalists must be aware of what is hateful journalism and how to avoid it.


Hate speech – and in particular the advocacy of hatred based on nationality, race or religion – occupies an exceptional position in international law.

Generally speaking, the right to free expression is a universal right underpinned by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It means that everyone can speak freely.

Journalists have the right to report unpopular ideas, even opinions that might shock, offend or disturb their audience. But journalists they need to be careful when reporting offensive or inflammatory opinions particularly from public figures, such as politicians or community leaders. Often they have a political interest in stirring up passions and in promoting conflicts or hatred of minorities.

Sometimes journalists are tied down by legal controls on what they can report. Many countries in Africa, for instance, have laws that strictly control forms of speech. These laws often follow international legal instruments such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which not only permit states to prohibit hate speech but actually require them to do so.

One particular form of hate speech, incitement to genocide, is one of only a few types of behaviour recognised as a crime under international law, akin to war crimes and crimes against humanity. This crime was recognised in the wake of the Second World War and the Nuremberg Tribunal, which was established to prosecute those responsible for atrocities committed by the Nazi regime. The tribunal’s judgements held that incitement to genocide is a crime under international law, even if not illegal under national law.

More recently, the crime of ‘direct and public incitement to genocide’ was one of the key charges laid against defendants in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, established by the UN in 1994 in response to genocide. Incitement to genocide is also a crime under the Statute of the International Criminal Court.

It is not surprising that international law condemns statements which deny the equality of all human beings. The ICCPR Article 20(2) requires states to prohibit hate speech, claiming: Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law. International law does not require states to ban all offensive speech towards national groups, races or religions but, if speech “constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence,” it must be banned.

This article is highly controversial. Some people think it is overly restrictive of free speech. Others argue that it does not go far enough in the categories of hatred it covers.

Some countries, in particular the United States, take the view that speech should be banned only when there is an imminent threat of violence. Ethan Zuckerman, Founder of Global Voices, told a conference in Yangon in 2014, that to justify banning free expression “there has to be an imminent and direct threat and in my view violence in progress.”

In Africa hate speech is generally defined in laws that have a broad approach to speech that can discriminate. When these laws are vague and can be interpreted loosely it leads to dangerous pressure on legitimate forms of speech. Sometimes speech can be robust, even offensive, but if it does not lead to violence or the threat of violence it should be tolerated.

For this reason any prohibition on hate speech must be interpreted in a way that strikes a balance between the values of free expression, equality and human dignity. This is a difficult balance to strike, particularly when there is no clear and acceptable definition of what constitutes hate speech. It is necessary to examine both how different national jurisdictions achieve this balance and the historical and socio-political context at play when they do so.

The Turning the Page of Hate campaign will aim to help journalists and media to become more aware of the defining characteristic of hate speech — that it is not necessarily the words or images that are used, but the context in which they are used.

What might be seen as inflammatory in one situation may be relative harmless in another. A conversation between a small group of people in a café, for instance, is different from a thunderous address to a volatile and crowded public meeting. How do we judge the context in determining whether a particular act of speech amounts to hate speech?

As a start, in 2001 the free expression officials of the United Nations and major regional international bodies issued an important statement which sets out a number of conditions for laws on hate speech:

  • No one should be penalised for statements which are true
  • No one should be penalised for the dissemination of hate speech unless it has been shown that they did so with the intention of inciting discrimination, hostility or violence
  • The right of journalists to decide how best to communicate information and ideas to the public should be respected, particularly when they are reporting on racism and intolerance
  • No one should be subject to prior censorship
  • Any imposition of sanctions by courts should be in strict conformity with the principle of proportionality.

However, the greatest problem with combating hate speech is not the law, which is usually quite sufficient, but its observance and application by the authorities.

In many countries there is often a lack of awareness of the dangers of hate speech for society as a whole as well as a long-lasting tradition of stereotypes and prejudice. Consequently, journalists need to guard against hate speech, even where ‘hate’ may not be the primary intention but is the result.

It can be argued that in the everlasting conflict of values, free speech is important, but many will argue that it is not the only value and it does not have priority over all other considerations. Those other rights, which are no less fundamental than the right to free expression, include – for instance – the right to live without fear and intimidation, the right to dignity (both on the personal and on the group level) and the right to be a member of society on an equal footing with others, without suffering discrimination and exclusion.


A toxic mix of political hate speech and media bias can stir up hatred anywhere, even in the most democratic of countries. A rise in the number of hate crimes against Muslims in many European countries in recent years, for example, is often directly encouraged by mainstream politicians and politically-biased sections of the media.

In many parts of the world attacks ranging from death threats and murder to persistent low-level assaults, such as spitting and name-calling, are in part whipped up by extremists and sections of mainstream society, including media.

Minorities in many countries often suffer from a negative image in media. Public opinion can be influenced by stereotypes or by extremism when expressed in reports or commentaries in the media. Often politicians and community leaders feed media stories that can inspire hatred, but media must always remember that just because someone says something outrageous it doesn’t mean it is newsworthy.

Even politicians who understand journalism can be guilty of stirring up hatred. In May 2012, for instance, the South African ambassador to Uganda Jon Qwelane, himself a former journalist, was found guilty of hate speech for an anti-gay article. He was fined by South Africa’s Equality Court and ordered to apologise for promoting hatred in a column published in 2008. Correspondents say the outcome of the case is particularly significant in the light of attacks and rapes of lesbian women in South Africa.

Unlike in many African countries, homosexual acts are legal in South Africa and discrimination based on sexual orientation is banned, but activists say gay and lesbian people are often attacked in townships. Although the newspaper involved, the Sunday Sun officially apologised for the column, Mr Qwelane refused to apologise.

Sometimes media take the lead in targeting vulnerable minorities. For example, in February 2014 A Ugandan newspaper published what it called the country’s “200 top” homosexuals, outing some citizens who had never publicly disclosed their sexuality.

The list was published the day after President Yoweri Museveni signed a bill enacting harsher laws on homosexuals. The newspaper Red Pepper published the names, and some photographs, of people they claim are homosexuals, including some prominent figures. Among those targeted was Pepe Julian Onziema, who had earlier warned that the anti-gay law could spark violence. This incident echoed an even worse case of an article published in 2011 in a now-defunct tabloid that called for gay people to be executed.

Whether it is over religion, ethnic background, or gender or sexual orientation, the issue of tolerance raises its head again and again as a major question in the newsrooms and studios of African media. And it is even more in focus as a result of the expansion of the Internet which has led to a rise in dangerous online speech.

Today it is not just journalists who have to hold their tongue and think before they write or speak. Everyone who has access to the open information landscape has to show restraint and respect for the rights of others.

African Media Leadership in Turning the Page of Hate

But how do editors, owners and journalists work together in the notoriously divided and competitive world of media? Creating a unified Turning the Page of Hate campaign requires a fresh commitment from the continent’s leading media, editors and journalists.

In fact, media in Africa are well placed to take leadership in developing ethical and quality standards for journalism to challenge those who want to use journalism as a vehicle for promoting hate.

It was in Morocco that the United Nations launched the Rabat Plan of Action in 2012 to counter national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination or violence. This international accord can be used to develop strategies to counter all forms of discrimination.

The Rabat Plan of Action calls on media and all civil society groups to create and support mechanisms and dialogues to foster inter-cultural and inter-religious understanding and learning. It demands that political parties should adopt and enforce ethical guidelines in relation to the conduct of their representatives, particularly with respect to public speech.

And it recognises that self-regulation, where effective, remains the most appropriate way to address professional issues relating to the media. All media should, as a moral and social responsibility, play a role in combating discrimination and in promoting intercultural understanding. In order to play that role, journalists and media should:

  • Take care to report in context and in a factual and sensitive manner, while ensuring that acts of discrimination are brought to the attention of the public;
  • Be alert to the danger of discrimination or negative stereotypes of individuals and groups being furthered by the media;
  • Avoid unnecessary references to race, religion, gender and other group characteristics that may promote intolerance;
  • Raise awareness of the harm caused by discrimination and negative stereotyping;
  • Report on different groups or communities and give their members an opportunity to speak and to be heard in a way that promotes a better understanding of them, while at the same time reflecting the perspectives of those groups or communities.

Finally, the Rabat Plan calls for voluntary professional codes of conduct for the media and journalists that reflect equality principles. Effective steps should be taken to implement such codes. This action plan, buttressed by the commitments to press freedom from the African Union and other regional bodies, opens the door to a new opportunity for journalists and editors to work together to promote ethical journalism. Certainly, informed and impartial reporting can put extremism in context and help expose irresponsible and inflammatory politics. When that happens it builds public trust.

This new campaign which is to be discussed in Kigali at the Turning the Page of Hate Conference (April 17-18th 2004) will link the best of journalism in Africa in a continental effort to eliminate those pressures that are used to recruit media to promote incitement. The campaign could involve training, awareness-raising events and initiatives to forge a culture of ethical journalism to counter the corruption and political pressures that inspires fear, uncertainty and self-censorship in much of African media.

Such an initiative, supported across all platforms of the media community and linked to respect for human rights on all sides, will demonstrate that not only have we in our memory the horrors of the past, but we have a practical vision of how journalism can contribute to media futures that are independent and focused on a public agenda that is inclusive and tolerant.

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Photo credit: Flickr CC Surian Soosay; Philip Kromer; trocaire