Twenty-five senior print, online and broadcast editors from Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Romania and UK gathered in Cagliari, Sardinia from 24-26 October 2013 to share their approaches, opinions and experience on increased evidence of hate speech across Europe.
Hate speech – the articulation of prejudice and the precursor to violence – has made an unwelcome appearance in political discourse and in the media, making the need for discussion among media professionals all the more vital.
Manipulating peoples’ fears and inciting hatred against unpopular social groups is a classic strategy of populist and extremist movements to gain visibility, build support for their divisive policies and garner vote especially in times of economic crises.
Concern about this phenomenon has been expressed by the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the European Union, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, UN special rapporteurs and many independent experts, human rights groups, academics, as well as civil society organizations.
Derogatory stereotyping and stigmatization of minority groups is a cause for alarm, especially when hate speech is promulgated under the cover of ‘freedom of speech’, the crucial anchor of any democracy. Having a space for public debate is an essential guarantee of open democracy; Suppression of shocking or disturbing ideas is the antithesis of an open democracy, where space for public debate is essential. A pluralism media fulfills that function, offering a range of voices and perspectives.
These were among the difficult questions tackled at the international gathering, questions editors across Europe have to face on an almost daily basis with the rise of right-wing groups seeking platform and publicity through the media. Participants debated on the limits of freedom of speech and their experience on tackling the problem of hate speech and discrimination in different countries.
Contributions came from well-established human rights and media experts. Kristof Domina, Konstantia Samara and Ralph du Long presented case studies about the rise of extremist movements in Greece, Hungary and the Netherlands. Ugo Maria Tassinari provided a historical perspective from his investigation of Italian fascists. Each participant had stories to tell about the challenges in their own countries.
As Ljubisa Vrencev from Greece pointed out, while the challenges and solutions may vary everyone’s perspectives are broadened by discovering about other contexts and experiences and techniques. Denmark’s Poul Anders Pedersen agreed that different models apply in different countries, and that the phenomenon is being faced differently in Northern and Eastern European countries. Kristof Domina from Hungary added that the more developed the country, the more active and significant the role of the media.
As one of the main topics of the discussion was the debate about media role in dealing with hate speech, UK expert Michael Whine, now a member of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) emphasized that media are often the main instigators of change, as journalists have the capacity to question the government and the society. Since media professionals have a key role in educating their audiences, they have an obligation to educate themselves and develop models of best practice.
The importance of examining problems of discrimination and hate speech in the media, and appropriate training for media professionals was supported by Professor Eric Heinze, who rejected the notion of banning all hate speech, but emphasized the need to improve the reporting on the minorities and vulnerable groups. Editors and journalists need to become better informed about the issues they are presenting to the public. The media often rely unwittingly on terms and stereotypes as an aid to communication without knowing much about the social groups to which they refer. Many people use racist and discriminatory expressions without even knowing that they can be harmful, he warned. “False images often are reinforced by bad journalism, by bad media. What is there to be done? Humanize the subject. Bringing minority groups into the media so that they are not only spoken about but become active participants can be one of the simplest solutions,” he said.
His views were supported by MediaWise Director Mike Jempson and journalist Shyama Perera who encouraged editors to share their own experiences of the impact of hate speech, and broadened out the debate to include diversity reporting, and raise the issue of the protection of journalists who can face hostility and threats when covering fascist groups.
Central to all the discussions was the issue of the right to freedom of expression and the crucial question that vexes every media professional: are not any measures introduced to deal with hate speech also a limitation on freedom of speech?
Ralph du Long of United for Intercultural Action brought up the question of media responsibility. Is it not more important than its duty of informing society? This is not a new debate, he said, it recurs after every controversial case, recalling: “`The Danish press published cartoons about Mohamed several years ago. It was quite insulting to Muslims and it is debatable whether this was a matter of freedom of expression or of discrimination and insult”.
Eric Heinze suggested that society must be informed even if it involves the insulting and vulgar language extremist groups use, but is it imperative to quote them directly. “It is very important to report on what extremists are saying and doing, but with a critical perspective of the history and context of the hate group and the groups being targeted“.
Ralph du Long acknowledged that it was inevitable that debate had become quite intense at the times, given the controversial nature of the topic, but stressed that what mattered most was the value in raising awareness about the dangers of hate speech and the importance of encouraging debate. Ljubisa Vrencev agreed: “Achieving balance between hate speech and the freedom of speech and not allowing mythology to poison the media sphere is the responsibility of the journalists and editors.”
The event of editors is a part of Media4Change movement. NISI is initiator and coordinator of this movement. NISI is the organization which has been hosting training around human rights issues for young European journalists since 2009.