Inga Sikorskaya, media expert and the Director of the research organization School of Peacemaking and Media Technology in Central Asia, in CABAR.asia interview spoke about freedom of speech and hate speech, about the struggle for an independent media and challenges that journalists face.
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CABAR.asia: The negative impact of the media on certain conflicts is frequently stated. Is the media’s role in these processes exaggerated?
Inga Sikorskaya: I think it is not. We are not exaggerating; there are many cases throughout the history, when the media were involved in the outbreak of local conflicts or wars. Another question is how it happens and how people interpret it. Most often, modern media either use the hate speech, or report events with excessive sensationalism.
The negative effect of such reports would be reduced if the society has enough alternative information. That is, when the consumer of information is able to determine own way to respond to such reports.
Otherwise speaking, it is not media reports, but social conditions, including the degree of media literacy of a society, that play a critical role in fueling certain conflicts?
Definitely. It also depends on the level of the social tension in the society.
The problem is that the media most often cover very sensitive events. Journalistic ethics are important here. The higher the degree of media ethics, the better the self-regulatory tools in this media community work, the less likely the probability of the media to fuel any serious conflict.
It is necessary to fight the hate speech, but we should not hope that we are able to eradicate it completely in the Internet environment.
There are more than a million of the hate groups on the global network, such as xenophobic groups. However, they all have a right to exist. This balance is necessary to preserve the freedom of online expression; if we react on such groups’ existence, it will be tempting to introduce restrictions on the Internet usage.
As the famous saying goes: I do not like what you say, but I am ready to listen to you just because it is your freedom, it is your right to say that.
However, there are other problems. For example, even public figures use hate speech and deliver hostile, offensive speeches against different groups.
Donald Trump, the most famous hate speaker in the world, or Vladimir Putin, do not mince their words. I recently met with Western journalists; they puzzle their heads sometimes on how to quote such politicians. These are the costs of the current times for the journalism.
In Europe, hate speech laws are included into the anti-discrimination legislation. In Central Asia, laws on inciting hatred are interpreted within the framework of anti-extremist legislation, like nowhere else in the world. Therefore, we have high penalties levels. It is very scary.
Have you heard of the case of Tajik journalist Daler Sharifov? What do you think about his arrest?
In Central Asia, any arrest of a journalist raises serious doubts and concerns. In most cases, we assume that this is related to the pressure on freedom of expression and that authorities want to silence the critics of the regime by doing this.
The authorities do not state anything about the reasons for Sharifov’s arrest. We know almost nothing about the case, except the Prosecutor General’s statement. The charges were brought against him in a closed court hearing; the journalist’s lawyers were forbidden to provide details. What are the reasons for this? Are they doing it on purpose?
I think there are no reasons [for a closed court hearing], because the world is moving towards freedom. After Edward Snowden, there are no secrets in the world. Therefore, what is the point of holding a closed hearing of a journalist’s case, when everyone will still find out the truth and criticize the pressure on freedom of speech even more? Even if the journalist, supposedly, was wrong. There is no point in the closed court hearing; on the contrary, it must be open.
I have worked in the repressive states: as IWPR Editor in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. When the uproar was provoked after the journalist’s arrest, at least there was some kind of reaction. The silence in such cases is not an option.
I believe that in such cases only the strategy of speaking up is effective. On one hand, it may intensify repression, however, in the future, it will always be a tool for the human rights community, for the media community and for the global community.
Censorship is a relic of the past. We observe that countries with the strict censorship and repression do not develop ideologically. Independent and free journalism has to be fostered. Freedom of expression has to be fostered.
The Tajik media community is still trying to do something under such difficult conditions. This, of course, arouses my admiration, because I do not understand how journalists can work under such conditions, perfectly realizing what could happen to them anytime, just because they criticize and cover some topics. They say that they are invited for conversations, they are called on the phone and they are censored: “you should not write this”. That is, living and working under such conditions is very scary.
It seems to me that the media community should unite and demand the open explanation about what happened. Why was Daler Sharifov arrested? Why was that court hearing closed? Around the world, everything is being decided openly now.
According to the Prosecutor General’s statement, a religious expertise revealed that Daler Sharipov’s book “was developed in the context of the movement Ikhwan-al-Muslimin” (“Muslim Brotherhood” – organization banned in Tajikistan). How right is such approach, when the body that brought the charge, conducts the expertise itself?
In general, any linguistic or similar expertise is a very bad practice.
In different countries of the world, including Central Asian countries, there are different practices, different methodologies. For example, in Tajikistan it is impossible to apply the methodology developed in Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan, because the ideology is different, the political conditions are different and the law enforcement practice is different. This creates big problems. It is hard to say whether the authorities are right or wrong.
For example, in Kyrgyzstan, under the laws on inciting hatred, almost all of the expertise conducted helped the prosecution. Same in Kazakhstan.
When we write analytical reports or some articles about the cases where there was an expertise of extremist statements, we always pay attention to two factors: what methodology did the forensic center or state expert use to determine that this particular idea is extremist and was that methodology scientifically sound.
Often, we do not know anything about this, because these methodologies are shrouded in mystery. Most often, the authorities in these examinations rely on a single expert in some sphere. The expert draws conclusions and the expertise helps the prosecution.
In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, alternative independent examinations are practiced in such cases. However, in the Central Asian region there are almost no centers for independent expertise.
Our organization conducted several examinations, but they were not related to extremism, but to hate speech. Many organizations that face such legal claims turn to Russian organizations. However, this is also wrong, because Russia has its own repressive methods, which further aggravate the situation. Therefore, it would be very good if some public organizations would deal with this issue.
Meanwhile, in Russia, where the practice is also mostly repressive, as far as I know, one public organization managed to receive a comment from the Supreme Court, which stated that quoting religious sources from official denominations did not incite hatred.
Is it possible to develop a unified approach so that the media know that broadcasting such messages can be considered as a spread of extremism in accordance with article 189 of the Criminal Code of Tajikistan?
I believe that the nongovernmental sector, human rights defenders and the media community of the country need to unite and hold a discussion to develop several approaches. This would resolve many questions. Although, of course, it is very difficult to do this taking into account the situation in Tajikistan.
Do you suggest that the Tajik media community also appeal to the Supreme Court for the comments?
Not the media community, but human rights activists. That is, they can cite an example of Russia and, by analogy, ask for clarification on issues related to extremism.
I can also advise the Tajik media community to conduct an independent expertise of Daler Sharifov’s case. Such examinations do not have evidentiary foundation in court. However, they have some power in contesting the evidentiary foundation, because they can throw light on some details.
What can you advice to Tajik journalists on avoiding hate speech and covering conflict sensitive topics?
It is necessary to observe ethical standards. Journalists often ask us how they should quote people who said something terrible. The speech can be quoted if there are light types of hate speech, such as clichés and stereotypes, or if those words cannot be removed. We should simply mention that this is a cliché in relation to some group; there is nothing wrong with that.
Second. Journalists should always improve their skills. The situation is changing, and the hate speech changes with it. Under the guise of combating extremism and inciting hatred in society, some mechanisms of suppressing the freedom of expression may appear.
Therefore, journalists have to be flexible. It is necessary to introduce editorial instructions and policies on how a journalist should act, for example, when covering a conflict situation; how should he write if there are any conflicting quotes. Very often, the editors put at risk their journalists, telling them to write in a certain manner; and then the journalist is the one to blame.
We need to develop the practice of preparing special editorial instructions on hate speech issues, on covering religious issues, and creating special glossaries for conflict-sensitive topics.
Third. We should hold the discussions in the journalistic community about the hate speech, the propaganda of extremism and the necessary actions. We need to be more active. I understand that it is very difficult under some conditions, but we should not be silent, otherwise the journalism will die here.
This article was prepared under IWPR project “Stability in Central Asia via Open Dialogue”.