Hate speech and freedom of expression online: Framing the debate – #SAFoE

by Richa Kaul Padte

This blog post is first in a series of ten blog posts to report on the 'Third South Asian Meeting on the Internet and Freedom of Expression' recently concluded in Dhaka, Bangladesh. All the blog posts in this series are written by Richa Kaul Padte, the official rapporteur at the meeting.

Communication is a foundational human right – we use it to advocate for other human rights’ – Dixie Hawtin

The third chapter of meetings exploring the relationship between the Internet and freedom of expression in South Asia was opened by Dixie Hawtin – from London-based organisation Global Partners and Associates – who contextualised the two central themes of the meeting (cyber security/​surveillance and online hate speech) within the larger context of human rights. While conceptualising it, the architects of the Internet were not thinking about human rights, but about furthering one-to-one communication in an unprecedented manner, which has indeed opened avenues for information and dialogue in a variety of ways. It has also, however, posed new challenges for human rights activists, particularly as the response to increasing hate speech online has often been heavy, State-enforced measures of security and surveillance in the name of protection. This poses a unique threat to the freedom of expression, where on one hand excessive hate speech may prevent people (particularly from marginalised groups) from voicing their opinions, whereas on the other hand, as Dixie points out, if you don’t know who is looking at your communications [i.e. the State], it’s hard to express yourself freely.’

However, as Anja Kovacs from the Internet Democracy Project states, the right to equality and the right to freedom of expression are complementary.’ Kovacs uses this understanding as a starting point to approach the subject of hate speech, and identifies two central challenges around the issue:

  • Hate is an emotion, it is something intangible’, therefore, defining it can be complicated, though most agree that the idea of harm is central to identifying what does and does not count as hate speech.
  • Legal measures are generally seen as the only response to hate speech, which is problematic for many reasons. For example, criminalising the speech of small far right groups in Europe has led to greater publicity for these groups, and has often served to promote and legitimise their existence. Furthermore, if the laws around hate speech are weak and fail to successfully curb it, it may appear to be an endorsement or acceptance of the speech, and serve as an indication of impunity for others.

Responding to the latter of these challenges, Kovacs recommends a broader approach to the issue of hate speech that addresses widespread inequality. She advocates the building of societies and cultures without discrimination through extra-legal measures such as awareness raising, education (not only in schools, but involving adults and the judiciary), and wider programmes. Considering the ways in which legal measures often lead to censorship, she states, It is important to allow counter-speech and dialogue. A lot of hate speech is built on prejudices, and if you want to fight them, you need to talk about them. Unfortunately, what happens is that hate speech laws often make it difficult to have these conversations at all.’

However, there are of course certain types of speech that must be criminalised, but in order to effectively to do so (while still adhering to the principles of freedom of expression), there must be high and well-defined thresholds before offensive or shocking speech can be defined as hate speech. In order to identify what hate’ in this sense constitutes, Kovacs refers us to the thresholds of hate speech as outlined by UN Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue in his report. The report states that the speech must be of a public nature – though the characteristics of the Internet perhaps call for redefining what public’ means – and at the very minimum must present a real and imminent danger, contain the intention to harm, and the harm must be obvious.

It is through a rigorous adherence to principles such as these that the complicated terrain of hate speech may begin to be navigated and negotiated, in terms of both legal and extra-legal measures, to foster non-discriminatory societies that place a high value on the freedom of expression as a human right.