How can journalists responsibly report hate speech?

Article by Bettina Peters • Thomson Foundation


In this dialogue with the SAAKSHI project, Bettina Peters, of the Thomson Foundation discusses issues relating to the right to freedom of expression, hate speech, the impact of laws banning hate speech, and the appropriate reporting of hate speech.

The right to freely receive, impart and share information is one of the key rights enshrined in Article 19 of the UDHR. Article 19 of the ICCPR goes further and states that the exercise of this right should be subject to certain restrictions provided by law. However, there is a lot of controversy about how far these laws should go and the impact they could have on freedom of expression. In addition, there is the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which says there should be legislation against racist speech. However, different countries interpret this in different ways.

About ten years ago the special rapporteurs of the UN, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Organisation of American States and the African Union met together and established five points setting out relating to the balance between freedom of expression and hate speech, believing that it is important to put freedom of expression first as the reverse can be more problematic. Hate speech is not the same as incitement to violence, although the two may seem to overlap. The context of reporting is very important and it can be dangerous to rush a report out without careful consideration of the consequences. New codes of ethics are not required; the existing ones need to be better observed.

Hate speech and ‘trolling’ on social media can be a problem. Journalists need to have adequate support networks if they are not to become victims. In addition, they need to be careful how they report something that is ‘trending’ on twitter etc. as, by giving it a wider audience, they may exacerbate the problem.

Conferences like the 2014 SAAKSHI journalists consultation are useful in waking up journalists to the need for more diligence in reporting and confronting hate speech.


The Thomson Foundation is an organisation that works with media organisations, governments, civil society bodies and commercial entities seeking to sponsor professional excellence in communications. In countries where there is no free press or democratic government, they work with media organisations over a long period, helping to demonstrate the value and power of balanced, fair journalism, believing that journalists and the media can play a vital role in good governance, holding governments and commercial entities to account in the public interest and helping to promote social and economic development.

Bettina Peters is the director of development at the Thomson Foundation, and a leader in journalism and media- management training in transition and developing countries. Her areas of expertise are in media development policy, journalism training and media capacity building with particular experience in Eurasia, Asia, Middle East and Africa.


In this dialogue, Bettina discusses issues relating to the right to freedom of expression, hate speech, the impact of laws banning hate speech, and the appropriate reporting of hate speech.

Over the last few years the Thomson Foundation, in collaboration with the Indonesian Press Council, the Institute for Peace and Democracy and the Ethical Journalism Network, has organised the Bali Media Forum, which brings together journalists, editors, journalism trainers and most importantly, representatives of independent press councils in Asia to discuss different issues that are facing them – always around promoting ethical journalism and quality in journalism. Last year, the 5th Bali Media Forum focused, within the context of covering elections and the role press councils can play in trying to uphold quality and mitigate potential problems, on the issue of hate speech, which was one of the topics discussed at the recent Journalists' Consultation organised by the SAAKSHI project in August 2014.

Question: “Could you tell us about the UN and how freedom of expression is defined by the UN in relation to hate speech?”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) Article 19 is a fairly all encompassing definition of the right to freely receive, impart, share information as the freedom of expression. This is one of the key rights enshrined in the UDHR.

Hate speech as such is not defined in international covenants or agreements and it is not mentioned in the UDHR, but it is referred to in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Article 19:

“The exercise of the rights . . . . . . 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, or of public health or morals.”

This means that member states, countries are permitted, or even required to pass some kind of legislation that prohibits hate speech. However, it does not define what hate speech is or how member states should go about passing legislation; with the result that states have found different ways of doing it and there are arguments about how it should be done. What is recognised in international law is the incitement to genocide. Thus, where speech eventually leads directly to a group, for reasons of their religion, race etc., being persecuted on a genocidal scale, then international laws come into force, but most hate speech does not reach that level and it is up to individual countries to deal with it and they do so in many different ways.

There is also the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which says there should be legislation against racist speech. However, different countries interpret this in different ways. The United States has found an interpretation which allows them to err on the side of free expression. Most western democracies have registered a concern and, like the US, try to interpret it in the context of freedom of expression. Freedom of expression, as protected by the UDHR, includes the right to offend, disturb etc., so there is a distinction between speech that someone might find offensive or hateful, which is protected by freedom of expression, as opposed to incitement to genocide. The UN leaves individual states to interpret this in their own way, but there are examples of inter-government institutions, such as the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), having a different interpretation.

An example of this is a Danish journalist who was convicted in Denmark, under the international convention on racial discrimination for a television programme where he had discussions with young skin heads and racist youths and who were giving all kinds of racist messages. He took his case to the ECHR who said that the broadcast had to be taken in context: the programme was not promoting racism, but making the public aware of the nature of the problem and they found (correctly in Bettina’s opinion) in the journalist’s favour. The court concluded that if you don’t allow journalists to talk to people with hateful views and report these issues in context, then you curb the debate at a level which will be harmful, however well meaning your intentions might be.

The UN, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Organisation of American States and the Africa Union all have special rapporteurs on freedom of expression. About ten years ago, they met together and came up with five points setting out how they thought you could strike the balance between freedom of expression and hate speech:

1. No one should be penalised for statements that are true;

2. No one should be penalised for the dissemination of hate speech unless it has been shown that they did so with the intention of inciting discrimination, hostility or  violence;

3. The right of journalists to decide how best to communicate information and ideas to the public should be respected, particularly when they are reporting on racism and intolerance;

4. No one should be subject to prior censorship;

5. There needed to be limits, but any imposition of sanctions by courts should be in strict conformity with the principle of proportionality.

The problem that they sought to avoid was trying to legislate internationally against hate speech because there were too many possible cases that could come up. While, unfortunately, there are many examples of all kinds of hateful speech and outright hate speech, there are also a lot of examples of where laws are being used to restrict free expression, restrict criticism and restrict, in particular, minorities, all under the guise of either blasphemy laws or hate speech laws etc. In trying to strike a balance, it is important to put freedom of expression first as the reverse can be more problematic.

Question: “How can journalists respond to hate speech?  Should they report it?  If so, should they quote words?  How can they do it in a responsible manner?  How far should they go in order to expose incitement to violence by an extremist group in a sensible manner?”

There is a distinction between incitement to violence and hate speech. Whilst, often, they may seem to overlap, the former is quite specific because it calls for on someone to do something against another group.

The context of reporting is an important consideration.  Who is saying this?  What is the situation in which they are saying it?  Is it really newsworthy?  While I am trying to expose something, might I, inadvertently, be promoting what they are saying?

It is important that relevant facts and information are  juxtaposed with outrageous statements in order to show the context.

It is important to pause and take time to think, rather than rushing into publication.  Discussing issues in editorial sessions can help to lend balance;

It is important that the leaders in the media, e.g. editors, take matter seriously.

Role of Codes of Ethics

Codes of ethics describe the aspirations of the profession – how they should behave.  They are not laws.  Press councils and other groups have codes of ethics and may impose sanctions if they are broken.  Most of them address issues such as the avoidance of discrimination, so they do have value.  However, we don’t need any new codes; what we do need is some way of translating these aspirations into “what does this mean for me in the news room?”  There are ways of achieving this which do not involve new laws or codes.  This is something that editors should be more involved with.

Question: “How can Journalists best respond when they become victims of hate speech and trolling?”

This can be quite a traumatic experience.  The key is to have adequate support networks.  This is more difficult for freelance journalists, but most journalists are part of a newsroom, which can provide a level of professional support and protection.

Often, the best thing to do is to ignore it, but as a journalist you do have the advantage that you are part of a media organisation, so if you have something to say you have a platform from which you can say it – bigger than anything offered by social media.

There is a problem with trending: if journalist picks up and reports something that is trending on Twitter or Face book, they will give it an even wider audience which can lead to it being and can blown out of proportion.  Professional discernment is required in determining whether and/or how something should be reported.  The ethical thing to do may be go against short term commercial pressures and ignore it.

When it comes to the reporting of the persecution of religious minorities, journalists are often lazy and fail to get their facts right, which may lead to mistakes and misinformation.  A quality news organisation needs to make the effort and investment to ensure that what they disseminate is accurate and to be aware of what the impact of their mistakes could be.

It is important that conferences like SAAKSHI project’s journalists’ consultation, the conference of the UN Alliance of Civilisations, which deals with a host of things, including hate speech, and the Bali Media Forum, where professionals and civil society groups are dealing with these things, say to politicians, UN institutions etc.: “we may not have all the answers and we are not perfect, but we are addressing these problems”.  Because if it is left to be covered in an international legal environment, there is serious concern that it will limit freedom of expression without really helping to confront hate speech.

There are more examples of blasphemy laws being abused and misused than examples of blasphemy laws protecting minority groups.

(This article is based on a video interview the SAAKSHI project did with Bettina Peters in August 2014. Kindly note, this is not a word for word transcription. The original video can be viewed here.


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