Hate language still holds sway

Again and again in Malaysia, those who defend the rights of citizens to exercise their fundamental liberties are treated as offenders.

Again and again in Malaysia, those who defend the rights of citizens to exercise their fundamental liberties are treated as offenders, while those who incite fear and hatred and inflame racial and religious sentiments are given the upper hand to dictate the agenda through compliance, support or inaction by key state institutions.

Zainah Anwar, The Star

WHERE should we draw the line between freedom of expression and incitement to hatred? This is a debate that occupies the international human rights system today as governments grapple with the need to fully respect freedom of expression as protected by international human rights law and comply with the prohibition of incitement to hatred.

As democracy matures, the public space for debate opens up further. Citizens, educated and aware of their rights, begin to articulate their demands for justice and social change. Diverse voices will compete for public attention and support. Traditionally marginalised groups will assert their right to be treated as citizens with equal rights and dignity. This is all good for democracy, respect for human rights and the well-being of society.

However, the problem arises when those identified as “others” are constructed by the dominant community “as people who do not share a community’s history, traditions and values” and, as a result, are “all too often perceived as predatory competitors, or at least a threat to the stability of that community’s belief system”, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said.

And thus they get demonised, threatened, discriminated against and even murdered just because they are different.

This is a global problem. In the name of “war on terror”, Muslims are vilified, attacked, or discriminated against. A whole community is demonised for the actions of a tiny minority who abuse Islam to justify their violence and terrorism.

In the name of ethnic or religious homogeneity, whole communities are physically removed from a territory by driving them out, deported to concentration camps, or murdered. In modern times, the forcible expulsion and murder of Jews in Europe, Muslims in the former Yugoslavia, and Tutsis in Rwanda stand out.

In the name of religion and culture, homosexuals are stigmatised, attacked and murdered.

It is obvious that human beings are not born to hate those who think, act or look differently. Just look at a playground of toddlers of all colours and backgrounds playing together.

All too often, hate, fear and insults are manufactured to serve a political agenda. And it is convenient to manipulate and abuse religion, ethnicity and culture to create fear and anxiety in order to delegitimise the rights and interests of the “others”.

In modern times, the media have been used as tools to inflame perceived grievances and rouse emotions, escalating tensions and conflict that can result in violence. Much research has been done to show how in Serbia, Serb supremacists used television to stir up ethnic tensions prior to the civil war. In Rwanda, Hutu propagandists used the radio to lay the groundwork for genocide.

While such atrocities seem impossible in Malaysia, the fact is in our country today, fear and hatred are manufactured on a daily basis and public opinion inflamed through screaming headlines in some mainstream newspapers and television stations, and in the venomous hate language in the alternative new media.

Muslim feminists, human rights defenders, and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) groups and individuals are among those most vilified and demonised.

Recent events are cause for much concern. Many feel we are on a slippery slope to potential outbreak of violence. A country that has thrived, celebrated and been enriched by its history of embracing diversity and pluralism is today dominated by extremists who manufacture threats to race and religion supposedly posed by those they disagree with.

Thus, we see the demonising and defaming of Datuk Ambiga Sreenivasan for her courage and resolve to go ahead with the Bersih rally.

The fact that government leaders took the lead in depicting Bersih as a threat to national security opened up the space and gave legitimacy to the even more belligerent voices among non-state actors.

Death threats were sent; vile, abusive and hate messages proliferated by SMS and on the Internet, Bersih supporters were labelled “communists”, “anti-Islam”, or “funded by foreign Christian groups”.

The attacks against Seksualiti Merdeka are yet another public contestation that swiftly escalated into a shrill and belligerent public discourse.

First, a forum to discuss the rights of LGBTs was portrayed by the media as a festival to promote free sex and a threat to security. Ambiga who was due to launch the event was once again demonised, this time labelled the “anti-Christ” by the right-wing group, Perkasa, which demanded that her citizenship be stripped.

Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir, who defended Ambiga against these unjust attacks, in turn became the target of hate mail.

As expected in Malaysia today, close to 200 police reports were lodged all over the country against the organisers and supporters of Seksualiti Merdeka. The police banned the event and many activists were called in for questioning.

It is one thing to exercise one’s right to differences of opinion, but it is another when stigmatising, demonising, fear and hate-mongering language and accusations are hurled at marginalised and discriminated groups and human rights defenders.

Irresponsible newspapers day after day use inflammatory headlines to build up the frenzy. Mobs are hired to intimidate organisers and the police intervene, not to disperse the hooligans but to raid legitimate meetings held indoors to discuss issues of public interest and concern.

Again and again in Malaysia, those who defend the rights of citizens to exercise their fundamental liberties are treated as offenders, while those who incite fear and hatred and inflame racial and religious sentiments are given the upper hand to dictate the agenda through compliance, support or inaction by key state institutions.

While Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) protects the right to freedom of expression, Article 20 also requires governments to prohibit the “advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred which constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”.

While striking the right balance is no easy task, the clear meaning is that freedom of expression is to be upheld for as long as it does not advocate hatred and incite discrimination, hostility or violence against an individual or group. Any limitations should take place only in the pursuit of justice and democratic principles, not against those who stand for justice and democracy.

But all too often, restrictions on freedom of expression are enacted in order to protect the interests of those who benefit most from silencing criticism, dissent and public debate on contentious issues.

That a group like Sisters in Islam which upholds equality and justice for Muslim women is demonised as anti-God, anti-Islam, and anti-Syariah, a coalition like Bersih 2.0 which demands for free and fair elections, is portrayed as a threat to national security and public order, or an event like Seksualiti Merdeka to recognise the human rights of people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities is deliberately stigmatised as a “free-sex” festival, arguably does not constitute a legitimate exercise of free speech but incitement to discrimination and hostility that could potentially result in conflict and violence.

The Prime Minister in his Malaysia Day speech promised the dream of a new Malaysia “that practises a functional and inclusive democracy where public peace and prosperity is preserved in accordance with the supremacy of the Constitution, rule of law and respect for basic human rights and individual rights”.

How do the hate language and the relentless police reports by extremists against those demanding their constitutional right to fundamental liberties, and the continual phone calls to activists to visit Bukit Aman or a police station for yet another round of questioning under one restrictive law or another, create this democratic and inclusive Malaysia?

A government that practises democracy must protect and nurture a public space that promotes justice, equality and democratic and human rights principles.