IN this age of political corr
ectness, hate speech remains a sensitive subject, especially when put against the fundamental right to freedom of expression.
Hate speech is a term for speech intended to hurt and intimidate someone because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or disability.
Since the fall of Nazism in Europe after the Second World War and closer to home following the end of apartheid in South Africa, the liberated have remained sensitive to hate language and the use of “fighting words”, especially in the public or mass media.
Fighting words were defined in a United States Supreme Court judgement of 1942 as those that “by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace”. In each of these categories the expression regulated is injurious either to the rights of a specific individual or to the public interest.
Media and Information Commission (MIC) chairman Tafataona Mahoso’s letter to Zimbabwe Independent editor Iden Wetherell two weeks ago raises the fundamental question of what constitutes hate speech in Zimbabwe.
Mahoso’s complaint with the Independent was that the editor had allowed the publication of a letter which, he said, was “sweeping” in its racist remarks. It should not have been published he said.
“The letter you published on January 2 2004 is typical of the worst expressions of racism from the former slave territories of the United States, from Apartheid South Africa and from the days of UDI in Rhodesia,” Mahoso claimed.
“The fact that this is supposed to be only an individual’s letter expressing individual opinion does not in anyway exonerate the editor or the publisher.”
Media monitor Sizani Weza said Mahoso should not advocate censoring of opinion.
“Mahoso expects his opinions on the performance of the privately-owned media to be heard,” said Weza. “He also expects his opinion on other subjects to be granted the same status. Yet he wants the media to censor opinions of others on some subjects. In the absence of any agreed national and African values, such threats to the media are a recipe for disaster.”
A central aspect of the hate speech debate is that concepts of what is acceptable and unacceptable differ, depending on eras in history and one’s cultural and religious background. There is a nexus between a country’s history and social values, and what can be termed hate speech. Social scientists say the Zimbabwean scenario poses a problem as value systems have been given definition and accent by the government and not necessarily the public through consensus. This, they said, has narrowed the definition of hate speech to focus on racism and anything considered disrespectful to President Mugabe — even if he is prepared to take on his opponents using what could be described as fighting words.
Some observers believe that the accusation of hate speech is often made to suppress points of view which are unfavourable to certain “protected groups”. This, the observes say, represents a significant infringement of the tradition of journalistic freedom and gives members of these groups an unfair advantage in the marketplace of ideas. The Jewish lobby has been active in the defence of the Holocaust legacy.
Weza said what can be construed to be hate speech could just be a matter of a point of view.
“One person’s hate speech will be another’s legitimate point of view. To impose restrictions on what may be said is therefore a subject that can only be discussed by regulatory bodies with unquestionable independence of thought. As the MIC stands, its inadequate neutrality in addressing such concerns has been found wanting in a court of law,” he said.
A court recently ruled that Mahoso’s commission was not properly constituted. Mahoso has disputed this and has appealed to the Supreme Court against the ruling.
Critics have however pointed that Mahoso’s commission should broaden its horizon and open discussion on the subject instead of threatening newspapers. They say his commission should start to probe forms of hate speech which have been perpetuated by the public media and remain unchallenged.
Dr Vimbai Chivaura on the tele-vision programme National Ethos in March 2002 tried to drum home the point that whites can never be Africans.
“Since the value system of the Europeans, of the white man, of the Rhodesian in Zimbabwe is exclusive, it is racist, it does not have any place for us,” he said. “We should come up with this kind of ethos: Zimbabwe for Zimbabweans, Africa for Africans, Europe for Europeans. That is the starting point because that’s what they do.”
There are well-documented accounts of politicians, including Mugabe, making statements which border on incitement.
Apparent racist comments against the thinning white community have been celebrated in the state media as words of valour.
“Our party must continue to strike fear in the heart of the white man, our real enemy! Make them tremble,” Mugabe thundered during the height of farm seizures in 2000.
In 2001 Vice-President Msika was quoted in the media as weighing in with: “Whites are not human beings.”
A report by the Media Monitoring Project (MMPZ) on the role of the media in the 2002 presidential election says Mugabe endorsed a racist policy when he said his government had made a mistake by advocating reconciliation with the whites at Independence.
“When you forgive those who do not accept forgiveness, when you show mercy to those who are hard-hearted, when you show non-racialism to die-hard racists, when you show a people with a culture — false culture of superiority based on their skin — and you do nothing to get them to change their personality, their perceptions, their mind, you are acting as a fool.”
The MMPZ commented on Mugabe’s statement: “It can be argued that this was an official endorsement of a racist policy by government whose justification was that whites did not accept reconciliation and remained racist and therefore should be treated the same way.”
But in a tension-filled and antagonistic environment, critics have pointed out that prohibiting hate speech does nothing to change the ideas that give rise to the opinions behind the use of fighting words.
Although hate speech may be dangerous, one should not end it by threats and intimidation, but by debate and discussion. As long as there is no agreed code of ethics, the MIC cannot censure the media on the basis of questionable media norms dressed in African nationalist regalia.