Speech is an inalienable right guaranteed by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In spite of its global approval, freedom of speech is intermittently inhabited, abused and selectively applied in civilizations around the world. In democratic societies, for instance, people have the right to freely express dissimilar opinions and make free choices without reprisal.
By Peter Quaqua, Former President, Press Union of Liberia
Free expression thus, makes election an intriguing democratic value. Naturally, the media and journalists are understood to be enablers of democracy as they present the platform for healthy political debates that allow the electorates to make informed choices. But these debates sometimes turned belligerent and inflammatory as we have already seen in the Liberian elections. That’s why conflict practitioners have designated elections as one of the triggers of conflict. Election speeches can easily degenerate into conflict if actors have no self-awareness. There is ample evidence far and near to corroborate the devastating effects of election-related violence. Even established democracies have had their share of election violence, let alone fragile democracies.
More often than not, media and journalists are accused of complicity in fueling and escalating election disputes, rightly or wrongly. Yes, we are all too familiar with the susceptibility of journalists to manipulations by various players. So, a careful scrutiny of the concept of speech should help media practitioners separate free speech from hate speech. Journalists are not politicians (and I mean those who dare to be professional) and can’t afford to be guilty of any abuse regardless of your disposition on the vexing issues of the moment.
This piece is therefore intended to help safeguard journalists from litigation and attacks, but also to create awareness and protect the public from any kind of violence resulting from the abuse of freedom of expression.
Drawing the line
Understanding the difference between free speech and hate speech is of the essence in journalism practice. While both theories involve the freedom to express oneself, they differ greatly in their intent and effect.
Free speech is a fundamental right that allows individuals to express their opinions, ideas, and beliefs without censorship or punishment from the government or other authorities. It is central to democratic societies, in promoting open dialogue, diverse viewpoints, and the exchange of information. Free speech covers a broad range of expressions, including political speech, artistic expression, and even offensive or controversial viewpoints. It is protected by laws and constitutions in many countries including Liberia.
On the other hand, hate speech refers to expressions that incite violence, discrimination, or hostility towards individuals or groups based on characteristics such as race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. Hate speech often propagates harmful tagging of people, promotes division, and can have severe emotional and bodily consequences for its targets. Unlike free speech, hate speech is not protected under most legal systems, as it poses a threat to public safety, social harmony, and the well-being of marginalized communities.
One main difference between free speech and hate speech lies in their impact on others. Free speech, even if it may offend or challenge prevailing norms, generally does not directly harm people or incite violence. In contrast, hate speech is intrinsically destructive, as it seeks to humiliate, disgrace, or marginalize individuals or groups. It targets people based on their inherited characteristics or identities, promoting discrimination and prejudgment.
Another difference is the intent behind the speech. Free speech is normally driven by the desire to express one’s thoughts, share information, or engage in constructive debates. It often aims to challenge the status quo, promote social change, or express dissenting opinions. Whereas, hate speech, is inspired by hatred, prejudice, or a desire to subdue or harm others. Its primary purpose is to spread hatred, fear, and division among people.
It is important to note that the margins between free speech and hate speech can sometimes be obscure, and different societies may have different interpretations of what constitutes hate speech. Some argue that any form of speech that promotes discrimination or violence should be curtailed, while others believe in the importance of protecting even offensive or controversial expressions to preserve the principle of free speech.
However, and wherever you stand, free speech and hate speech represent two distinct notions with contrasting impacts, intent, and legal protections. While free speech is a crucial pillar of democratic societies, hate speech poses a threat to societal cohesion, individual well-being, and fairness. Understanding the difference between the two helps foster a more informed and responsible approach to information sharing and expression.
It is excusable for politicians and their supporters to say whatever comes to mind in the context of free speech. They could even choose to lie, insult, and be intolerant of other views. But while facilitating the dissemination of speech, journalists must take responsibility for what they say/write and what they allow in their media outlets. In times of heightened election tension, journalists must reinforce their gatekeeping responsibilities. You don’t want to be held liable for any wrongdoing.
Allow me to also say that journalists are not careless or reckless talkers. Journalists don’t speak anyhow. You don’t use your platforms to express your personal grief or vent your anger. Your speech should be measured in the context of ethics and that speech does not include hate speech. The onus is on you journalists, to protect the civic space and prevent the misuse of your platforms.
This is Peter Quaqua, your fellow comrade.