Respect for Freedom of Expression
and Confronting Hate Speech

The media is a double-edged sword, and is one of the most dangerous weapons in rallying, mobilisation and shaping of public opinion trends.

While media can play a positive role in promoting a culture of peace and understanding within communities or between peoples, it can, if misused, become a lethal weapon of a far-reaching impact in stirring up seditions, hatred and resentment within the same society, or in rallying up groups against each other. Perhaps the best example of the power and influence wielded by the media is that it had been the Nazi regime’s most effective tool in mobilising Germany and consolidating the Nazi agenda in the minds of its people, which led to disastrous consequences for Germany and the world.

Inspired by bitter experiences, the world conscience has woken up to the need to adopt the necessary measures for protection and advancement of human rights. Thus, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was issued embracing those rights, and stressing the need to respect and protect them. Based on its belief in the importance of the human’s freedom to express oneself and his/her views, the Declaration included in Article XIX a text emphasizing the right to freedom of opinion and expression, while Article XX provided for the right to peaceful assembly and the formation of organizations and groups. The international community has successively endorsed those rights through subsequent inclusion in relevant international conventions and treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Developed countries and those aspiring to democratic evolution took care to include in their constitutions all matters pertaining to the promotion of human rights in accordance with international standards, including freedom of opinion and expression. In fact, the extent of compliance with these criteria has become a factor in determining a nation’s status within the international community.

Similarly, the violation of these rights has not only become susceptible to condemnation and highlighting of the source of violation, but has also become open to the possibility of taking effective action against countries violating those rights, and confronting them at the international level.

This has become more so as the culture and mechanisms of human rights have experienced steady leaps during the past two decades, making direct intervention, an option in the context of giving priority to the concept of human security over the traditional concept of state security and sovereignty.

In the old information system, control of the media rested in the hands of the state, which either grants or prevents freedom of expression, if it so desires, and allows or disallows the other opinion, or the opposition, to have a voice. Nowadays, it has become virtually impossible for any state to control the media space, especially with the advent of the social networking reality. Moreover, the idea of ​​blocking and control has become universally repugnant and is seen, even among the international jural milieu, as an encroachment by the state on a space it has no right to control.

In general, democratic states tend to interpret into reality the wording of their constitutions in relation to freedom of opinion and expression, whether through autonomization of state-owned media, as exemplified by the BBC model, or by allowing political opposition entities and trends not only to benefit from the state’s pulpits but to establish their own print, audio or visual media fora.

Due to the well-established and deeply rooted democratic concepts in these developed societies, the freedom of expression therein is automatically associated with responsible practice, where freedom of expression is a constructive tool for meaningful criticism, that is restricted to matters related to public affairs, and distancing itself from altercations and anything that may foment sedition, or lead to destabilization of the safety and security of the society.

Persisting in ensuring that media serve the desired lofty goals, those who oversee or practice media activities agree that it should be safeguarded through precautionary measures and a protective fence, to ensure that media do not cross the red lines or turn into a source of chaos, social discord and instability or cause damage to the interests of the state in general, not just to those of a class or a ruling party. Such measures usually manifest themselves in specific professional ethics, standards and codes of conducts adhered to by everyone, with violators being subject to legal accountability.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 20: (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. (2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

However the amazing leaps caused by the communications revolution over the past decade, led to a breakup of the monopoly of traditional media corporations over the platforms of thought and opinion and the potential of exclusively shaping public opinion trends according to their own agenda and inclinations. This, however, has not presented a difficulty for developed societies with respect to developing measures to contain any negative impacts arising from the new platforms, without compromising the basic principles that guarantee the human right to freedom of expression.

While the long experience in the field of democratic practice has provided developed communities with better opportunities in connection with full commitment to the principles of human rights, basic and subsidiary, including respect for and securing the freedoms of opinion, expression, assembly and association, matters are different in our communities that face tremendous obstacles in the path of consolidating their democratic foundation; thus it would be unfair to judge their performance concerning the available space for freedom of opinion with the same standards applied in developed societies.

At a time when our societies are in need for freedom of expression and assembly, and all civil and political liberties, the media outlets should be monitored to prevent them from becoming an element of dissonance and internal fragmentation. Instead of acting like a launch pad to expand the horizon of a diverse community with all its components and trends, freedom of expression can be misused to the extent of even hampering communication between those components, whether ethnic, religious, sectarian, cultural or political. The media is supposed to reinforce the collective sense of common destiny and unity of goal as a bulwark against the evils of fragmentation and discord. However, if it fails to achieve this, the reason would not be because of freedom itself, but rather the lack of controls and the absence or weakness of the legislations that protect freedom of expression on the one hand and penalise those who use it contrary to the public interest, on the other hand.

Our peoples need a period of time in order to absorb the values ​​and culture of democracy, including the recognition of others and respect for the principle of tolerating differences of opinion, and the right of everyone to participate in public life. Freedom of expression should contribute to encouraging citizens to exercise their rights in full and accustoming them on the proper practice politically and culturally, while establishing a certain degree of control that would allow the seeds of freedom and democracy to grow and flourish.

The freedom of expression, as is the case with other civil and political liberties, should be coupled with responsible exercise that ensures non- infringement on the space of others and no disturbance of social peace and security. This may be realised through striking the right balance between self-censorship, the sense of social responsibility and compliance with professional rules and press norms on the one hand, and the enactment of appropriate gap-closing legislation to prevent malpractices and a slide to what could threaten the security of the society, on the other hand.

Now, amidst the prevalence of a discourse that encourages terrorism and the incitement to racial, religious or sectarian hatred, there is an urgent need to develop laws and deterrent measures, especially in societies that are divided among themselves politically or culturally. In the circumstances of sedition, the freedom of expression should not be suppressed in any way. What needs to be done however is to adopt zero tolerance for any incitement to hatred by any means of expression and by anyone involved? Those who infringe upon the freedoms of others or contribute to the fragmentation of the society should be referred to justice according to a clearly defined law which criminalises incitement to hatred or promotion of internal or external violence.

There is a fine line between what falls under the definition of the right to freedom of expression on the one hand, and what could be viewed as incitement to hatred on the other hand. In a society of crisis, this line becomes even more subtle to the extent that its features are almost blurred. What is needed here is not to protect certain ideas or beliefs from criticism (which differs from incitement); but rather to protect the adherents of those ideas and beliefs from violence and persecution, as well as the protection of their rights to express or exercise such ideas and beliefs.