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Distasteful But Not Hateful: How To Identify Hate Speech

“History shows that hate speech has also been used to intentionally mobilise groups and societies against each other in order to provoke escalation of violence, hate crimes, wars or genocide,” said Nalini Elumalai, senior Malaysia programme officer at Article 19.

Screenshot of Jocelyn Chia performing

By Ariane Priyanka and Najua Ismail

KUALA LUMPUR, May 13 – When an excerpt from Jocelyn Chia’s stand-up routine at the Comedy Cellar Club in New York was posted online last year, controversy erupted.

The Singapore-born comedian poked fun at the long-standing rivalry between Singapore and Malaysia, pointing out that Malaysia had fallen behind the island nation in terms of development, saying in her bit that “my airplanes cannot fly”, referring to Malaysian aeroplanes.

She then followed up with “Malaysia airlines going missing not funny huh?”, a more obvious reference to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, which mysteriously disappeared along with all 239 passengers onboard during its journey from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014.

Backlash ensued on social media, with netizens in Malaysia and even Singapore calling her out for being distasteful. One X (formerly twitter) user chided her for her insensitivity in turning “a traumatic event for Malaysian” (sic) into a joke.

Another X user posted: “I don’t know why Jocelyn Chia’s direct hate speech is popular with American audiences“.

The word ‘hate’ was again used in a criticism referencing Chia’s speech by an audience member at a webinar organised last April 16, by the Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights (MCCHR) on Combating Hate Speech: Understanding, Identifying and Preventing.

The audience member said: “Sometimes I don’t really understand why stand-up comedy nowadays likes to use these kind of jokes, not just MH370; some are even using rape jokes, hate jokes and I think it does cross boundaries.

“But I know our stand-up comedians also support, saying it’s just jokes; why are we being politically correct or something. But for me, I think we should be more aware, because some things are ok for us, but how about their family members,” she continued, presumably referring to the family members of the missing passengers of MH370.

Within The Framework Of Freedom Of Expression

 According to Nalini Elumalai — senior Malaysia programme officer at Article 19, an international non-profit organisation that advocates for freedom of expression –though, what Chia said “is still within the framework of freedom of expression.” She added, “even though I disagreed with what she said.”

Nalini told the audience at the webinar: “We need to understand that freedom of expression protects all forms of speech, including speeches that are considered of lower value or downright trivial.

“But more generally, the right to freedom of expression protects not only the freedom to express alarming ideas, but also to express ideas in alarming ways. You have a right to offend, disturb, shock and stuff like that.

“I did think it was distasteful, offensive and inconsiderate, especially for the families who are still healing at this point in time, not knowing what happened to their family members; but (the) right to joke is part of freedom of expression.”

 Freedom Of Expression As Defined by International Convention

Nalini said it was important to understand how hate speech is distinguished from other forms of expression. This starts with an understanding of the concept of freedom of expression, which is enshrined under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) as follows:

1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.

2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.

3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:

(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;

(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.

“Article 19 (3) gives obligations for the state to restrict or limit a speech. It’s also important to understand that any restrictions on freedom of expression must follow this three-part rule under the ICCPR,” said Nalini, further explaining that such restrictions must be provided by the law and must have a legitimate aim.  

“When you talk about legitimate aims under the law, that means a speech or opinion can be restricted if it falls into a category that harms public safety or national security or public order or public health. If it does not, it is freedom of expression and should not be restricted.

“Restriction or limitation of freedom of expression that doesn’t fall under this category is a violation of human rights.”

 No Unified Definition Of Hate Speech

Nalini Elumalai, senior Malaysia programme officer at Article 19.

Unfortunately, a more definitive definition of hate speech is harder to come by, said Nalini. This is because the context of hate speech can differ from one country to another.

“Even whatever that we see in Semenanjung Malaysia, it could be different in Sabah and Sarawak. It even differs from district to district sometimes.”

Despite the lack of a unified definition of hate speech,  there is a consensus among the human rights community and in general around the world, that hate speech undermines the right to equality.

The challenges of identifying hate speech include the fact that it is not always manifested in a clear language, Nalini explained.

“Sometimes, stereotypes, false accusations or rumours about a community or certain parts of society may not be direct hate speech, but in the long run, it could be hate speech, and it could even incite violence or discrimination.”

It is not easy to pinpoint hate speech, according to Nalini, who says she hears people refer daily to something or other as hate speech when it actually isn’t. “It might be unpopular and you don’t like it, it doesn’t mean it’s hate speech.”

One of the articles in ICCPR that covers hate speech is Article 20 (2) which states that any advocacy of racial, national or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.

“So most of the time, if it falls into this category of inciting violence, discrimination or hostility, we call it hate speech and it falls under this Article. That means it has to be prohibited.”

Harmful Impact Of Hate Speech

While the devastating impact of hate speech has resonated throughout the ages, the advent of new communication technologies like social media has enabled hate speech to proliferate more swiftly, easily, and widely by extending its reach and amplifying its message.

“The worse case scenario is it can lead to atrocities, like genocide for example. And hate speech does not only affect the dignity and human rights of the individual that is being directly targeted by hate speech, but also of persons belonging to the same minority group,” said Nalini.

The Holocaust, Genocides, And Massacres

The most famous example of this would be the Holocaust, which has its origins in hate speech against the Jewish and other minorities.

Through laws and regulations that disempowered independent media, the Nazi regime in Germany disseminated hate speech using state-controlled radio and print media, culminating in the extermination of around seven million Jewish people and people from other minority groups considered social, political and racial outsiders by the regime, during the second world war.

Another example of the use of hate speech to incite genocide happened in the 1970s when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime relied on hateful propaganda to characterise opponents, intellectuals, as well ethnic and religious minorities as “enemies” of the Cambodian people, resulting in the deaths of approximately two million Cambodians.

Hatred and disinformation campaigns were also found to have played a crucial role in the Bosnian war between 1992 to 1995.

Nationalist propaganda tarred the Bosnian Muslim population and other groups as violent fundamentalists who were hatching insidious plans against the Serbs.

This led to the Srebrenica massacre in which 8,000 Bosnian Muslim boys and men were killed in the town of Srebrenica, a “safe area” under UN protection, by the Bosnian Serb army.

More than 100,000 people lost their lives and 20,000 went missing in the Bosnian war.

Hate propaganda was also instrumental in creating the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world involving the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar.

In August 2018, the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar established by the United Nations Human Rights Council published a report documenting the widespread hate propaganda spearheaded by state officials, military and religious leaders, as well as politicians in the country.

An excerpt from the report reads: “The analysis demonstrates that a carefully crafted hate campaign has developed a negative perception of Muslims among the broad population in Myanmar.

This campaign has been the work of a few key players: nationalistic political parties and politicians, leading monks, academics, prominent individuals, and members of the government.”

This hate campaign, which continues to the present day, portrays the Rohingya and other Muslims as an existential threat to Myanmar and to Buddhism.

In the case of the Rohingya, it has gone a step further. It is accompanied by dehumanising language and the branding of the entire community as “illegal Bengali immigrants”.

This discourse created a conducive environment for the 2012 and 2013 anti-Muslim violence in Rakhine State and beyond, without strong opposition from the general population.

It also enabled the hardening of repressive measures against the Rohingya and Kaman in Rakhine State and subsequent waves of state-led violence in 2016 and 2017.”

“History shows that hate speech has  been used to intentionally mobilise groups and societies against each other in order to provoke escalation of violence, hate crimes, wars or genocide,” said Nalini, adding that it impacts not only the entire world, but also the societies we live in.

“It increases stereotypes, prejudice, intolerance, it widens polarisation and it takes away your right to co-exist in the world like everybody else.”

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