"Freedom of expression and countering hate speech": report of a side event of the human rights Council

NEWS - The CIPADH provide here a report of a side event occured in the frame of the Human Rights Council which currently take place in Geneva. It was organized by the Permanent mission of Finland et by UNESCO on June 22th.


Freedom of expression and countering hate speech online to prevent youth radicalization


Moderator: I. Foulkes

Abdulaziz  Almuzaini – Representative of UNESCO

Mr Almunaini stated that freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, as well as a key ingredient of tolerance, rights, and democracy. He added that everybody has to support transparency, responsibility, to finally hold up tolerance.
According to him, young people are able to share information online and across frontiers through social media, but there are also used for terrorist propaganda and form a tool to prepare violent acts. Nevertheless, he noticed that youth is also the category the most able to counter hate speeches.
He judged necessary to create restrictions for hate speech but without jeopardizing freedom of expression. He added that we must stand up for journalists, especially the ones who are threatened, and that it is necessary to protect the right to inform whatever the context is.

P. Karamo – Finland ambassador

Mr Karamo started his intervention by saying that the right to information is of utmost importance. He would like the fight against radicalization and violence extremism to be favored, because freedom of expression without fear is the final goal. No tolerance for racism or other hate speeches must be allowed. According to him, the priority is to target especially hate speeches targeting children, by making a safer internet to children and young people. They need to be more aware, so that propaganda and extremism can be rejected.

Mona Rishmawi – Chief of the Rule of Law, Equality and Non-Discrimination Branch in OHCHR

Ms Rishmawi gave a legal presentation of this fundamental right. She explained that freedom of speech is a protected right in international law. According to her, it is the foundation of every democratic society.She explained that freedom of opinion has no limitation and is absolute in law.
The issue lies in how people express it: this can be subject to restriction by law. Indeed, human rights law prohibits hate speech, and she argued that hate speeches inciting discrimination or violence must always be prohibited, whereas opinion is always protected. International law occurs when discrimination or violence and all that is considered as criminal is advocated.
She reckoned Internet is essential in our lives now, but can be used for criminal speeches and attitudes, and is sometimes leading to criminal offenses. So restrictions can be justified, but must be handled with care so as not to violate human rights. She pointed out that youth represents the main user of internet and social media but a minority uses it for destructive purposes.
She added that there is no consensual definition of the term “radicalization”. The main issue is about opinion and belief, which is protected in any case. Freedom of thinking, consciousness and religion is always defended in international law. The problem is how belief and religion are expressed, but she advised to be balanced to judge that. The question is: how can belief lead to violence?
In her mind, policy to stop radicalization though internet must include the prohibition of some types of expression online, and the blockage of some online contents.

Guy Berger – Director of the section for freedom of expression and development of media in UNESCO

Mr Berger exposed three elements he reckons are necessary in the fight against violent speeches online.
On the first place is the matter of protection. He pointed out the necessity of protecting society against a destructive potential of youth, and protect youth against it. Jihad websites need to be blocked, surveilled and people infected with such viruses detected as soon as possible.
The second point is about the preparation. Measures can be implemented, as supply of content, providing a lot of counter messages, and reducing vulnerability to infection. But this phenomenon is more complex than a mere virus infection. Furthermore he reckoned that it is easy to blame internet, but expositions also occur offline, especially in familial circles, schools and prisons. According to him, restrictions need to be parsimonious to counter the lingering risk of violating freedom of expression and privacy.
The third and last point deals with the prospects. Berger argued that we have to recognize young people as subjects, and answer the question “which possibilities do they have?” Young people need opportunity to express themselves, otherwise they are exposed to the use of violence and are vulnerable on internet about these kind of speeches.  He urged the audience to stop seeing young people as a threat.
He concluded that States have to merge both protection and preparation.

C. G. Fernandez – Ambassador of Costa Rica

Mr Fernandez focused his presentation on the protection of journalists. He raised the following question: how can we balance security and freedom of expression? This is the main challenge we face with social media.  He judged that we need to be sure that freedom of expression is everywhere in the world, online and offline, but also framed by laws for the ones who abuse it.
The good strategy would be to focus on education, which is the most efficient method to fight extremism, according to him. He considered the UN failed its approach of security, and that the UN has a lot to do, mainly concerning the role of education and of legal frames at the internet level.
Amir Taheri – Iranian journalist
Mr Taheri started his speech by alluding to “Reporters sans Frontières” which symbolizes the fact that frontiers are not only geographical but also put by governments on freedom of expression.
He went on with the difficulty to define the terms “hate” and “terrorism”: when does it start? The UN failed to define it. Indeed, Taheri thinks that freedom is not black or white whereas diplomats judge if one case is freedom or not without middle ground. Therefore, in his point of view, this is not the good approach to take on.
Furthermore, he thinks expansion of limits of freedom expression need to be encouraged, and not make even more restrictive. He considers that there are no justifications to put limits to freedom of expression.    He added that most of hate speeches come from media belonging to governments, and the subject of the hate speech is often something unknown in the country in which it happens. For instance, he mentioned that campaign against Jews often take place in countries in which there are no Jews.
He concluded by saying everybody has to support freedom of expression.

Anjoo Sharan Upadhyaya – Professor at the Center for peace research, Banaras Hindu University

Mr Upadhyaya argued that this phenomenon of hate speech is new. According to him internet has a huge impact on it, as social media have impact over everything in the everyday life.

Additional content from the answers:

Foulkles considered freedom of speech is not a universal value, everybody interprets it differently.
Berger added education is fundamental to counter radicalization but the problem is also about identity and is bound to other factors. Indeed radicalization concerns also very highly educated people.
Rishmawi insisted on the fact that violence is the problem. She added that people sanctioned for their opinions are mainly journalists. Furthermore, in most violent attacks, the point where opinion turns into violence has not been spotted. It is human to ask for security, but governments shouldn’t limit freedom.
For Fernandez, freedom of expression is a universal right. Education is not just academic but also concerns the way of living, the family, etc.
Berger ended the debate by saying that freedom is the rule, restrictions are exceptions and must be very limited.

Reported by Chloé Guille, research assistant for the Cipadh