Are We Doing Enough to Combat Hate Speech?

JB Tjivikua

According to the 2022 World Population Review Report, Africans are fairly racist towards one another, and this racism helps fuel conflicts on the continent. 

Hate speech is abusive or threatening speech or writing that expresses prejudice based on ethnicity, race, gender, religion and similar grounds, which may also threaten social peace.

Hate speech is discriminatory, biased, bigoted, intolerant or pejorative, prejudiced, contemptuous and demeaning of an individual or group.

It is an offensive discourse targeting a group or an individual based on these inherent characteristics.

Different forms of hate speech can include scapegoating, stigmatisation, stereotyping and derogatory language.

It is often employed in promoting conspiracy theories, disinformation and denial and distortion of historical events such as genocide.

THE LAWS

In Namibia, freedom of speech and expression is enshrined in the Constitution, which prohibits racial discrimination and apartheid, and numerous other facets including hateful expression used towards black people or certain tribes prior to independence.

Also, racist hate speech in Namibia is regulated under the Racial Discrimination Prohibition Act of 1991 to protect the gains of the long struggle against colonisation and racism and the right to non-discrimination.

The act was amended in 1998 to loosen restrictions on racist language if it is a subject of public interest, debate, or if the information is factually true.

Apparently, there has been no successful prosecution under this act.

One wonders about its efficacy or whether we should debate enacting more robust legislation.

South Africa, for instance, enacted legislation on 14 March 2023 – the hate crimes and hate speech Bill – containing severe penalties for expressing or propagating hate speech.

In the US, the right to freedom of expression is an almost non-derogable right, and is prioritised over other interests such as dignity and privacy. 

To provide a unified framework to address the issue globally, the United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech defines it as “any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, 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 or race. However, there’s no universal definition of hate speech under international human rights law.

While the above is not a legal definition, it is broader than incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, which is prohibited under the international human rights law.
 
DIGITAL DILEMMA
 
Hate speech poses a grave danger to the cohesion of a democratic society, the protection of human rights and the rule of law.

If left unaddressed, it can lead to violence and conflict on a wider scale. In this sense, hate speech is an extreme form of intolerance which contributes to hate crimes.

The growth of hateful content online is coupled with the rise of easily shareable disinformation enabled by digital tools.

This raises unprecedented challenges for our society as governments struggle to enforce national laws in line with the virtual world’s scale and speed.

Unlike traditional media, online hate speech can be shared easily, at low cost, at speed and anonymously, and has the potential to reach a global and diverse audience in real time.

The relative permanence of hateful online content is also problematic.

Properly understanding and monitoring hate speech across diverse online communities and platforms is key in shaping new responses.

However, efforts are often stunted by the sheer scale of this phenomenon, the technological limitations of automated monitoring systems and the lack of transparency of online companies.

WEAPONISATION

The growing weaponisation of social media to spread hateful and divisive narratives has been aided by online corporations’ algorithms.
This has intensified the stigma vulnerable communities face and exposes the fragility of our democracy.

As a result, some states have started holding internet companies accountable for moderating and removing content considered unlawful.

This has also evidently raised concern about possible limitations on freedom of speech and censorship.

A balance must be kept between fighting hate speech on the one hand, and safeguarding freedom of speech on the other.

Despite these challenges, the government must explore ways of effectively countering hate speech. 

  • Major general JB Tjivikua served in the Namibian Police for 27 years.

Stay informed with The Namibian – your source for credible journalism. Get in-depth reporting and opinions for only N$85 a month. Invest in journalism, invest in democracy –
Subscribe Now!