What does hate speech mean to you? The term has solidified itself in the public conscience as something amorphous and something to question over its ‘hateful’ nature. As our one nation debates over the status of hate speech, another in our Asia-Pacific region is facing the very real and frightening realities of it.
Myanmar, former ruby in the Commonwealth crown, known as Burma, has been featured in media of the New Tens for their current human rights emergency. The situation at hand concerns the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya communities living in Rakhine state, a region of North-West Myanmar that borders Bangladesh. Expulsion of Rohingya communities has involved the use of arson attacks, sexual violence and aggressive confrontation, tactics employed not only by the military but civilians. Colonial divisions, military power, institutional violence and ingrained distrust of foreigners have fed into a situation of mass violence towards Rohingya. But every wound has a weapon to deliver it. On the surface, ethnic cleansing with rudimentary weapons hardly seemed like a 21st century conflict, but several things set the violence apart from this perception. The quick dissemination of information, largely unrestricted hate speech and the development of Facebook echochambers.
Myanmar’s story starts as a majestic kingdom built on systems of hierarchy and community loyalty. It has since gone through British Colonialism, Japanese Occupation and extended military dictatorship. Through these stages, racism towards Rohingya has come in several incarnations. Despite presence in the nation since the 14th Century, the myth has persisted that Rohingya are ‘illegal immigrants’ from India or Bangladesh. The first wave came after Britain’s informal ‘divide and conquer’ strategy, Myanmarese resented how ‘Bengalis’ were favoured in administrative roles. Then scarcity and suffering under Occupation created a sense of grievance against those perceived as foreign, which included the Rohingya. This animosity continued well into the military regime age of Myanmar’s history, some examples included:
1947: Rohingya equated to meaning Indian or Bangladeshi in the 1947 Constitution
1974: Rohingya issued ‘Non National’ ID cards
1982: Rohingya exempt from citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship Law
These all work to subjugate the Rohingya in an institutional level but has spilled into the daily sphere of life. In 2015, Laws for the Protection of Race and Religion were passed which prevents miscegenation, that is, intermarriage. This view seems to be pervasive as it drew the attention of a 2018 UN Rapporteur Report where concern was expressed at similar statements echoed in classrooms and the almost completely unrestricted dissemination of such messages on Facebook.
The Wild Wild West Public Sphere?
This brings me to the Internet frontier. According to a 2018 Reuters investigation, the last revealed number of Burmese speaking staff dealing with Facebook abuse was 2. This is in light of an investigation that uncovered thousands of posts with violent and derogatory pornography regarding Rohingya, dehumanising language and celebrations of wanting to replicate Hitler’s genocide as well as other encouragements of violence. Two sheriffs against overwhelming violence. Extreme views seem to have permeated the mainstream, legitimised by their visibility. The Special Rapporteur report raises one concerning and relevant fact, Myanmar with a matrix of discriminatory legislation has no legal protections against discrimination in their multicultural nation. Not only does this mean that publications and speech which actively promote and encourage violence are able to grow, it means that there is no accountability for when these views travel to political levels to strengthen discriminatory laws. For example, in May of this year, it was not the state, but Twitter Community Guidelines that were the turning point in preventing the hate speech of Min Aung Hlaing. He is an army general, a role of significant political and social leverage in Myanmar and a role that allows for direct exercise of these actions. He had been caught, but he is one of many in the unregulated social media environment of Myanmar. What about those who don’t get reported or make it under the radar?
Hate Speech in New Zealand
While it is a valid argument that the situations in Myanmar and New Zealand may be far too different to be viewed analogously, there are several aspects of New Zealand society that I argue need considering when we talk on hate speech legislation. After all, what is happening in both Myanmar and New Zealand comes into a timeframe where Islamophobia is visible in political rhetoric and is informing the most powerful in many nations.
Like Myanmar and like the United States and like the UK, in New Zealand, discourse of political matters differs significantly between the cities and country, but a sizable proportion of voters, people who act on political messages will be outside of cities. This may mean that access to institutions that promote critical thinking, including access to universities, forums and a wider range of news outlets will be limited. Shared views can be influential in smaller places and so too can be acted on. As well as this, these places may not be exposed to other ethnicities, this lack of exposure may be exploited. A few years ago, I had come across a certain publication (Author has chosen not to name the book or White Supremacist group) which was a thinly veiled attempt to state that indigenous people were ‘inferior’ and an ‘unclean’ presence in the country, using frames that denied historical atrocities. The book contained a number of testimonials, including those from influential individuals in what I noticed to be rural areas of New Zealand. Unified provisions on preventing the dissemination of hate ensure that this isn’t a message left with the institutions or an ideal which can be attacked with anti-intellectualism.
However, relying on this prospective and vague slippery slope as the crux of my argument is limited. We must consider how speech is restricted and how such provisions are formed. Myanmar’s situation and New Zealand’s Christchurch attacks are of the same group, as manifestations of ethnic violence. If anything, the groups that should be consulted in this process are the minorities at risk or who have statistically faced ethnically charged attacks. But who is dominating the talk on freedom of speech? How have they been affected? It is not difficult to find those in relatively privileged roles in society remarking on how their freedom of speech is under attack. Is it? In a de-facto constitutional sense, s14 of the Bill of Rights Act states that ANY expression is protected. There’s comment section spats and accusations of racism, but I find it difficult to understand how limitations to discrimination can make the most privileged at risk of say, physical and institutional violence. If these accusations are unfounded and ruin their reputation, defamation can easily be claimed. Defamation is another limit to speech, particularly critical publications, and yet, as defamation is often claimed by the rich and influential, there are rarely any criticisms of its extent. Rather, it is anti-discrimination laws that leave some individuals feeling suppressed. A choice must be made, would lifting anti-discrimination laws to prevent hurt feelings or to allow potential proliferation of violent speech?
With censorship of ideas, Abrams v US states that it is paramount to prioritise autonomy of society through the ‘marketplace of ideas’ where the truth prevails after debate and consideration of several ideas. This is argued to be in the best interests of truth, self-government and self-realisation. The weakness of this consideration in determining freedom from censorship is that this does not consider existing power dynamics in internet forums in addition to the modern phenomenon of echochambers through the internet. The frontier is self-governed, so to speak, but not all have weapons and not all are about to fight it out. At present, the marketplace of social media ideas relies on algorithms and if there are discriminatory views, these are either argued to be addressed or reported to be removed. Not all will be caught by the net and not all may possess the critical experiences to evaluate such comments.
The marketplace of ideas is reflected in freedom of expression. Freedom of expression as protected in many global constitutions is made on the presumption that governments are not to encroach on the speech of their people. Specifically, this speech is to have some kind of societal value, historically this has included the right to protest, the right to critique governments and the right to speak up about injustices within a nation. In an ironic and cruel twist, freedom of expression has worked to the hand of the violence in Myanmar. Freedom of expression has manifested into hate speech which has worked to abet mass ethnic violence, eerily similar to the days of Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines prior to the Rwandan Genocide. But when journalists speak out against the massacre of Rohingya, they have been arrested. Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were known for their expose of a murder case of Rohingya boys and men. Under the pretense of revealing national secrets, they were arrested in a high profile episode which involved condemnation from human rights organisations. To come forth with information that is for the public interest and political awareness of what is happening within the country is expression of great societal value. It is also fuel for outcry against human rights abuses. The double standard of the suppression of very valuable information for the democratic process but allowance of speech that deteriorates it, has resulted in devastating consequences indeed.
Is freedom of expression a smoke screen for prejudice here? And ignored when convenient?
Let’s look at current events. Unlawful searches, an intimidation tactic used, were carried out on academic Anne-Marie Brady and journalist Nicky Hager. A December 2018 Stuff story covered the use of private investigation agency Thompson and Clark on Greenpeace, iwi, Christchurch earthquake victims and other activists. Yet these cases do not usually arise when freedom of expression talk comes to the forefront. Perhaps it is time they do, because we may not be so different to nations who suppress valuable democratic speech after all. There is a difference with these messages that have democratic value and those which work to subjugate minorities. Take your pick.
Finally, as seen in Myanmar and as seen in New Zealand, we do not have to wait for a tragedy to examine certain double standards and reasons for defending some types of speech and why others forms prevail. I raise the importance of defining hate speech as voiced by the targets of violence and with their participation in this process, the importance of examining the societal context that such text enters into and finally, the true value of what messages we allow. Violence is not directly caused by text, but it can very well empower and abet it.