Coun­ter­ing Hate Speech in Elec­tions

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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 visit­li­ca­tions/coun­ter­ing­hate-speech-elec­tions-strate­gies-elec­toral-man­age­ment­bod­ies

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