Countering Hate Speech in Elections
Democracies at various phases of development have proven vulnerable to hate speech and its ill-effects. Election campaigns provide particularly fertile ground for hate speech. Incitement to violence and the authority wielded by, and the amplifying effect of, mass and social media, have been a significant factor in recent years. The problem canbe dynamic and complex. Remedies involving restrictions on free speech and on political and electoral rights are controversial, as they may limit fundamental rights in a democratic society. It is important that stakeholders understand the range of issues surrounding hate speech during the electoral cycle, the regulatory and non-regulatory options that may be brought to bear, and how to build partnerships to ensure that elections are free, fair, inclusive and safe.
Definition of hate speech
Effective implementation of standards and laws governing hate speech requires several things. First and foremost, it requires a clear and consistent definition of the terms involved. Second, it requires a threshold by which authorities can determine whether hate speech has occurred, and whether it’s legitimately prohibited. There is no universally accepted definition of hate speech, incitement to hate, or other key terms within human rights law. As a result, courts and other public bodies around the world have applied assorted definitions involving various levels of detail. Too often, domestic legislation fails to clearly define hate speech and/or the grounds for incitement. And, in some cases, there is no reference to “incitement.”
What are the grounds for incitement to hatred?
Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) identifies three grounds for the prohibition of incitement to hatred, including national, racial and religious grounds. Other international instruments, domestic legislation, and legal interpretations have clarified and elaborated a wider range of justifications for prohibiting incitement. In addition to national, racialand religious grounds, these include: language, ethnicity, social origin, migrant or refugee status, birth status, indigenous origin or identity, gender/sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, political or other opinion, property ownership, mental or physical disability.
Bearing in mind the centrality of free political speech and robust public discourse to democratic societies, it is also the case that politicians bear particular responsibilities when it comes to hate speech. As public figures, they have broad possibilities to spread hatred and incite violence and, being in positions of authority, their speech carries greater weight. Hate speech is not limited to the extremes. It can easily spread to the rhetoric of mainstream parties. Hate speechdoes not automatically trigger electoral violence. What hate speech during electoral campaigns does do is increase the risk of electoral violence.EMBs, security actors and others responsible for providing a safe electoral environment must be prepared to mitigate and manage this risk. Electoral violence is “any harm or threat of harm to any person or property involved in the election process, or the process itself, during the election period.” Electoral security is the process through which electoral stakeholders, information, events and property are protected from harm or threat of harm. Electoral integrity refers to “any election that is based on the democratic principles of universal suffrage and political equality as reflected in international standards and agreements, and is professional, impartial and transparent in its preparation and administration throughout the electoral cycle.” Hate speech, which is often accompanied by intimidation and incitement, can trigger physical and psychological violence that directly undermines electoral security and electoral integrity. Hate speech may lead to actions that are clearly defined as offenses in law and that may qualify as a “hate crime.” In other instances, the speech itself may carry criminal penalties.
Hate speech and violence against women in elections
Hate speech can incite psychological and physical violence against a range of female electoral stakeholders including voters, election officials, candidates, party leaders, activists, and journalists. As women’s political visibility rises, so does their vulnerability. Women may be targeted for their political participation, affiliations, actions or simply for being women in maledominated political arenas. Strategies for countering hate speech in election campaigns There are a number of strategies that can be used to counter hatespeech and incitement to hate in election campaigns. While there will be responsibilities and tasks that are unique to EMBs it is also quite clear that no single institution or actor can successfully tackle hate speech in isolation. This means it is everyone’s business and interest that hate speech is addressed. Among the governmental actors and independent agencies, the EMBs may need or want to engage on hate speech interventions are: • The Police • Public Prosecutors’ Offices and the Courts • Human Rights Commissions/Ombudsman’s Offices • State bodies dealing with minorities or communal relations • State media • Media regulatory and oversight bodies • Ministry of Education • Local government authorities • Special commissions
Ministry of Women
EMBs will also want to engage with civil society organisations and civil society.Speak out early and often against discrimination and hatred Public officials have a platform from which to speak about and to sensitise the public and key stakeholders about the impacts of hate speech and incitement to hatred. EMB leaders can and must speak out about the use of hateful speech during election campaigns. By speaking out, EMB leaders can help raise awareness of hate speech and its consequences, which in turn, can help mobilise a public response. Electoral leaders are also uniquely qualified to explain to electoral stakeholders the dangers of hate speech to electoral democracy. Doing so will require the ability to recognise hate speech when it happens as well as the political will to publicly reject the use of such language.
Open space for pluralistic public dialogue
Many leading human rights institutions and NGOs often raise concerns about the nature, uses, and limits of legal approaches to dealing with hate speech. The more effective solution, they contend, is to counter hate speech with more speech, (i.e., to open the space for free speech and thereby enable counter speech). On one hand, EMBs must be careful not to appear to give an advantage to particular political actors or speakers. On the other, they can promote activities aimed at expanding public dialogue and debate during elections.
This article has been extracted from a paper on Countering Hate Speech in Elections authored by International Foundation for Electoral Systems’ (IFES). For more information visit http://www.ifes.org/publications/counteringhate-speech-elections-strategies-electoral-managementbodies