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Pulling the Plug on Violent Propaganda

Chiara Magni

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 22 2010 (IPS) - A review of modern human history finds no shortage of instances where hate speech has fuelled genocidal rampages against minority ethnic groups.

One of the most prominent is the case of Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), a Rwandan radio station that broadcast from Jul. 8, 1993 to Jul. 31, 1994. It is regarded as having played a crucial role during the April- July 1994 Rwandan genocide, spreading racist propaganda primarily against Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

A November 2009 study by David Yanagizawa of the Institute for International Economic Studies at Stockholm University estimated that the RTLM broadcasts explained an increase in violence amounting to 45,000 Tutsi deaths, about nine percent of the total.

“Speech alone cannot bring about genocide,” explains Susan Benesch, a human rights legal scholar who has been commissioned by the U.N. to develop policy guidelines on potentially dangerous speech, but it is “a catalyst to spread violence.”

Propaganda experts also point to the Armenian genocide – during and just after World War I – when the low literacy rate in Turkey meant that most media failed to reach more than a small number of intellectuals. Historian Vahagan Dadrian has stressed the importance of the sermons of Muslim mullahs and the messages of the government spread by town criers. Code words such as traitors, saboteurs, spies, conspirators and infidels were common.

Between 600,000 and 1,500,000 Armenians were killed during the genocide, with propaganda crucially fuelling interracial hate.

Nearly a century later, the U.N. Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide has hired Benesch as part of a groundbreaking 18-month project focused on ways to limit the effects of inflammatory speech, while at the same time safeguarding the right to freedom of expression.

Context is important, Benesch told IPS. “There are four main variables – the speaker, the speech act, the audience, and the social and historical context in which the speech is delivered. All four can contribute to dangerousness,” she said.

The project has three specific goals: design a blueprint for monitoring dangerous speech in countries at risk of genocide and mass atrocities; develop and test a methodology to gauge the dangerousness of specific speech; and produce policy response options.

Christopher Tuckwood, executive director of the Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention, told IPS that international legal norms need to be established in order to determine when speech is dangerous enough to be justifiably restricted by a government.

However, he added, “While it is important to guard rights like free speech, when possible incitement to genocide is taking place, the threat to people’s lives is too high to allow it to pass by on principle.”

It is very important to define genocide properly, as there is a major difference between genuinely dangerous and insulting or offensive speech, agrees Francis M. Deng, Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide.

“U.N. capacity to analyse information on possible genocide is fundamental. Our task is to gather information, particularly from within the U.N., and there is a lot of information that exists within the system,” Deng told IPS.

Mark Lattimer, executive director of Minority Rights Group International, underlined the paradox that international human rights laws on hate speech are sometimes used against the very groups they are supposed to protect.

“In Europe, for example, they have been invoked against black and Muslim activists, and in Iran and Rwanda such restrictions have been used quite cynically to limit the freedom of expression of political opponents,” Lattimer told IPS.

Tuckwood agreed. “This is something that constantly comes up as a legal issue in the U.S., where free speech is considered sacred but many individuals and groups abuse it to promote racist, homophobic, and other discriminatory views,” he said.

“At the opposite extreme are governments that use hate speech themselves. In between are those regimes which may use the pretence of restricting hate speech to justify censorship of the opposition,” Tuckwood said.

He added that placing restrictions on incitement to genocide is a very useful measure in preventing genocide itself, especially since new technology like the internet and social networking tools makes spreading hate speech and organising mass violence even easier.

Educating people about manipulative social processes and discrediting hate speech in the eyes of the public make inflammatory messages far less persuasive, Benesch said at a recent U.N. conference.

“People do not wake up one day and decide to start massacring their neighbours,” she noted.

The more information people have access to, the less they will be influenced by propaganda, which plays a critical role in fuelling interethnic hate.

“Not only does [potential dangerous speech] cause the dehumanisation of the target group, but it also motivates the rank-and-file perpetrators to obediently carry out the killings,” Tuckwood told IPS.

“This is why monitoring hate speech is a particularly strong warning indicator of the threat of genocide in a situation- of-concern, to use our own terminology,” he said.

Using the prevention strategy designed by Benesch, the U.N. Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide is trying to nip in the bud the creation of a social context that could lead to genocide.

Information from the field is essential to implement this strategy. The U.N. provides protection to people who could be endangered by making useful information publicly available, Deng told IPS.

“More and more we are finding that U.N. agencies are quite receptive to our requests for information, and we have daily, weekly and monthly reports based on the information gathered,” he said.

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