By Mohamed Keita
Across Africa in recent years, cycles of xenophobia, ethnic hatred, and homophobia have sometimes degenerated into deadly spasms of violence. On many occasions, the dissemination of unfiltered incendiary messages on digital media and social media platforms allows hateful messages to become more widespread—and quickly. The deadly xenophobic violence in South Africa in recent weeks highlights the urgency of limiting hate speech in the digital age.
In South Africa, xenophobic violence against African migrants is not new, but observers have blamed the latest flare-up on anti-immigrant statements made by both small business minister Lindiwe Zulu in January and the ceremonial and influential monarch of the Zulu nation, King Goodwill Zwelithini, in March. Following the January attacks on foreign merchants and their shops in reprisal for the killing of a local boy by a Somali shop owner, Zulu appeared to defend anti-immigrant sentiment. “Foreigners need to understand that they are here as a courtesy and our priority is to the people of this country first and foremost,” she told Business Day. “They cannot barricade themselves in and not share their practices with local business owners,” she added. In March, Zwelithini warned foreigners to leave the country, castigating them as a menace “dirtying the streets” with their “unsightly goods.” Mobs have echoed the King’s words during recent attacks on foreigners. Messages on social media, which often include false information about xenophobic attacks, have also incited hate and violence against foreigners.
This violent flare up reflects an alarming global trend. In January 2015, the United Nations issued a report, which noted that “hate speech and incitement to hatred are on the rise in many countries across all continents, and these hateful messages are frequently transmitted through traditional media and the Internet.”
Addressing hate speech often begins with regulation. While there is no universal consensus on a definition of hate speech, international norms suggest that only speech uttered with malicious intent to harm, denigrate, or dehumanize should be unlawful. For example, in March 2014, the United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide indicted Christian militia in the war-torn Central African Republic for the circulation of reports that referred to Muslims as “rotten potatoes” and justified attacks against them. In April 2014, the UN accused South Sudanese rebels of using a radio station in the town of Bentiu to air broadcasts “calling on men from one community to commit vengeful sexual violence against women from another community.”
In 2013, the UN launched the Rabat Plan of Action to promote guidelines to balance restrictions against hate speech with preserving freedom of the press and expression. This still leaves each society and culture to determine what it deems offensive, incendiary, or dangerous (i.e. messages that directly or indirectly incite to violence). For example, in August 2014, Adam Kiboi, a writer for Up, a private Kenyan magazine, criticized the Nation Media Group for publishing an article that included anti-gay comments. In the article, Edward Nyakeriga, a leader of Kenya’s Republican Liberal Party explained his proposed bill to legalize the stoning to death of homosexuals. (To be fair, the story also contained comments challenging Nyakeriga’s views). Kiboi criticized the article and accused the press of “undermining the debate about gay rights in our society.” He wrote that “these people should not be given the space, in print or online, to vent their gospel of hate.”
Ambiguous hate speech legislation in the majority of African nations has frequently led to unjust censoring of commentary that falls short of the international norms of hate speech. Uganda’s 1988 law criminalizing the “promotion of sectarianism” punishes the practice of degrading or exposing anyone to hatred, contempt, or disaffection based on religion or ethnic origin. No one has ever been successfully convicted under the charge, although the majority of individuals prosecuted have been critical journalists or political dissidents, according to news reports. In neighboring Rwanda, the Justice Minister declared in 2012 that the government was seeking to amend the country’s law against “genocide ideology,” and to scrap language that punishes thoughts and ideas. Karugarama said that the law’s ambiguity had been problematic for courts. According to human rights groups, several journalists and dissidents have been jailed under the law following political criticism.
Beyond regulation, it is important to understand the conditions that can make media a fertile ground for hate speech. A significant circumstance is when narrow political interests control the media, as in Rwanda before the 1994 genocide. Rwanda’s pre-genocide constitution formally banned all forms of hate and discrimination. The penal code punished the expression of hate against a group of people based on their ethnicity with a maximum sentence of one year in prison. Yet, Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines (RTLMC) and the newspaper Kangura, which enjoyed the backing of the regime in power, dehumanized Tutsis with total impunity.
Today, proponents of strict press control frequently cite RTLMC and Kangura as examples of the danger of too much media freedom. This idea, however, is a red herring when you consider that RTLMC and Kangura were neither free nor independent, but rather official propaganda outlets.
Unfortunately, the danger of African press as a propaganda tool is still present across Africa, given the financial uncertainty of the media. Paying for news is still a luxury for the majority of ordinary Africans, despite reports of a growing middle class on the continent. As a result, the overwhelming majority of media outlets, large and small, are under resourced and unable to make profits from copy sales or subscriptions. Consequently, media managers overly depend on advertising or financial patronage from government agencies, powerful politicians, and private companies. These elites represent narrow interests and their economic influence over news outlets lead to the erosion of editorial independence. These dynamics leave media managers vulnerable to co-option by anyone with power, deep pockets, and a desire to propagate a particular political agenda, however narrow and hateful.
This is particularly dangerous in times of political crises. In 2012, the International Criminal Court indicted Kenyan radio presenter Joshua Arap Sang for using his station to direct attacks against another community following Kenya’s disputed 2007 elections. According to the indictment, the attacks were to further the aims of a political organization associated with the current ruling party.
In other cases, some unscrupulous sections of the press have abandoned their ethical duties in order to exploit the currency of certain social prejudices or dominant political ideologies. For example, in February 2014, Red Pepper, a Ugandan tabloid, published the names of what it called the country’s “Top 200” homosexuals, shortly after the passage of a severe anti-gay law. Red Pepper engaged in this sort of sensationalism despite the murder three years earlier of Ugandan activist David Kato following his outing by another tabloid, Rolling Stone.
A prerequisite to sound and ethical news judgment is editorial and financial independence. Therefore, it is vital for the media to identify and attract more diverse sources of revenue. More plurality and diversity of investors in the media sector brings more competition of ideas and better quality information for the public.
South Africa’s press, which is one of the freest and most professional in Africa, has offered a good example by challenging xenophobic statements, and promoting informative, ethical, and positive discussions. Other South Africans have also deployed social media to preach tolerance over the recent xenophobic attacks, i.e. the #SayNoToXenophobia campaign on Twitter. In this virtual context, the best way to combat hate speech is with more speech. As these online debates rage, the value of ethical and independent journalists and media outlets has never been more important.
Mohamed Keita is a writer with expert knowledge of African media. You can read more of his writings on the topic in various publications, including The New York Times, Al-Jazeera Online, and the book series Attacks On the Press. Follow him on Twitter @MohKeit.[Photos courtesy of Flickr]