Prof. T K Thomas

Prof. T K Thomas

One of the major reasons for the all pervading violence, armed conflicts, threat of wars, terrorism and mutual mistrust is hatred. Even in interpersonal relations the root cause of differences of opinion which turn into enmity and violence is hatred. At the national and international levels don’t we find ongoing violent conflicts which have origins in hatred, violent communication and hate speech?

The launch of a global initiative against hate speech by the United Nations therefore is timely and relevant. Only an incorrigible optimist may say that such move is not utopian. Like all such initiatives meant for a nonviolent world this move by the United Nations has not received the media attention it deserves. It was a peace activist who drew one’s attention to the “The UN Strategy and Plan of Action Against Hate Speech” launched a month back by the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. One is inclined to say that peace and nonviolence are not exactly the toast of our media including the social media preoccupied with reporting on violent stories and highlighting mutual trolling by politicians. In such a situation one also read the following Press Information Bureau [PIB] release: “ The two year long celebrations from 2nd October 2018 to 2nd October 2020 across the country and all over the globe to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.” The extended two year celebrations by the Ministry of Culture, one gathers, is on account of the 2019 General Elections which was marked by acrimonious campaigns by all political parties practicing violent communication and hate speech!

It took a concerned Hon Supreme Court during the elections to tick off the Election Commission of India for “being toothless” in acting against politicians breaching the Model Code of Conduct through hate speeches and appealing to voters in the name of religion. It was only after this nudge from the Supreme Court that a chastised Election Commission was forced to impose campaign ban on at least some of the politicians while many other alleged offenders were let off. Those who faced such ban included a powerful Chief Minister, supremo of a major caste based party, a union minister and a leader of another caste/community based regional party notorious for his habitual hate speeches. The irony is that those who faced the Supreme Court dictated Election Commission ban and those who escaped such possible punitive action would join the litany of singing paeans unto the apostle of peace and our Father of the Nation on his 150th birth anniversary!

Such double talks are now universal. We have very powerful world leaders indulging in threats and hate speeches against less powerful countries asking other countries to behave. The most powerful country in the world recently warned politicians in Nigeria against hate speech, vote buying and derogatory remarks during their 2019 general elections there. While the U S President Donald Trump is often accused of hate speech and on a constant feud with the media, the former President Barack Obama, last September, in an unprecedented move charged Trump with ”hate filled” speech. It may be mentioned that this was unprecedented for a former President to speak against his predecessors or successors, unlike in India where national leaders often do not follow any such set conventions .

In his introduction to the Strategy document the Secretary General points out that, “Around the world we are seeing a disturbing groundswell of xenophobia, racism and intolerance -including rising anti-Semitism, and Muslim hatred and persecution of Christians .” The Introduction decries how social media and other forms of communication are being exploited as “platforms for bigotry”. The document highlights what Neo- Nazi and white supremacy movements do. “Public discourse is being weaponized for political gains with incendiary rhetoric that stigmatizes and dehumanizes minorities, migrants, refugees, women and any so called “other”.

What after all is Hate Speech? According to the UN Strategy document, there is no international legal definition of hate speech, and the characterization of what is ‘hateful’ is controversial and disputed. In the context of this document, the term hate speech is understood as ‘’any kind of communication in speech, writing or behavior, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, color, descent, gender or other identity factor. This is often rooted in and generates intolerance and hatred and, in certain contexts, can be demeaning and divisive.”

It may be worth mentioning that the Supreme Court had asked the Law Commission for recommendations to arm the Election Commission with laws to combat hate speech, ”irrespective of whenever they are made.”

In its report in March 2017 the Law Commission led by former Supreme Court judge Justice B.S Chauhan recommended two new provisions in the IPC including speech that instills, “fear or alarm” in the listeners, probably goading them to violence. In its recommendations the Commission defines hate speech as an, “incitement to hatred primarily against a group of persons defined in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief and the like. Thus, “hate speech is any word written or spoken, signs, visible representations within the hearing or sight of a person with the intention to cause fear or alarm, or incitement to violence.” The report also mentions about, ”The fine line between what constitutes hate speech and constitutionally protected freedom of speech and expression vary from country.” [sourced from the Hindu dated 15th December 2017]

The document signed by the UN Secretary General further calls hate speech as a “menace to democratic values, social stability and peace. Silence can signal indifference to bigotry and intolerance” ; a situation where the vulnerable becomes the victims.

The Peace Gong [with which one is closely associated as part of a think tank] promoting media and information literacy among children and young people also spearheads the concept of Nonviolent Communication, a weapon against hate speech. Isn’t hate the fountainhead of violence? As UN secretary- General launched United Nations strategy and Plan of Action against Hate Speech, it is time for citizen’s to work in solidarity to not only address the root causes of hate speech, but also challenge the structures and environment that promote this menace. The Peace Gong feels, a nonviolent communication revolution right from school level which includes mutual respect, empathy, compassion, the power of gratitude and kindness needs to be encouraged at a global level.

In combating hate speech another area of importance is media literacy. People at large are often confused as to what exactly is to be believed when exposed to divergent media projections. There is need for people to access, critically evaluate and even create media. Initiatives like the Peace Gong help children and young people to do exactly that. In a democracy, an informed citizenry is essential who can discern what is desirable for a free functioning democracy. How true is the saying, “If you are not informed then you are deformed!”

The UN Strategy of Action points out: The impact of hate speech cuts across numerous existing United Nations’ areas of operation. Including: human rights protection; prevention of atrocity crimes; preventing and countering terrorism and the underlying spread of violent extremism and counter terrorism; preventing and addressing gender based violence; enhancing protection of civilians; refugee protection; the fight against all forms of racism and discrimination; protection of minorities; sustaining peace; and engaging women, children and youth. Addressing hate speech, therefore, requires a coordinated response that tackles the root causes and drivers of hate speech, as well as its impact on victims and societies more broadly.

The UN Strategy will be guided by the following principles:

1.The strategy and its implementation to be in line with the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The UN supports more speech, not less, as the key means to address hate speech;

2. Tackling hate speech is the responsibility of all governments, societies, the private sector, starting with individual women and men. All are responsible, all must act;

3. In the digital age, the UN should support a new generation of digital citizens, empowered to recognize, reject and stand up to hate speech;

4. We need to know more to act effectively - this calls for coordinated data collection and research, including on the root causes, drivers and conditions conducive to hate speech.

There is urgent need for all concerned citizens across the world to support the new UN strategy against hate speech. Politicians will continue to use hate speech especially during elections to win at any cost. It is for the citizens to be ever vigilant and discerning to make the right choices.