Lively discussion of the Draft of Hate Speech at Media Monitoring Africa workshop
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“How can online hate speech be restricted without affecting the right to free speech?“ – Thirty five representatives from government, media and civil society discussed this question at a workshop in the middle of January organized by Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) and supported by KAS Media Africa. Participants compared South African and German solutions to the debate at the one-day event held at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
A new bill is currently being drafted in South Africa to make hate speech on social media an offence. Not everyone agrees with it, as the present version provides broad flexibility in interpretation: activists are afraid that it will leave space for a restriction of freedom of expression. Objections against the draft can be submitted at the Department of Justice until January 31.
Media Monitoring Africa has regularly organized panel discussions about media-related topics in collaboration with the KAS Media Programme. Hate speech has already been debated at a workshop in November with a similar gathering of participants, so a common knowledge base was the starting point for the discussion. Everyone was able to exchange their points of view and had the opportunity to gain more information by asking experts. A workshop for children around the age of 12 dealing with the same topic took place next door. The children expressed their thoughts about hate speech, freedom of opinion and equality in a playful way and their ideas were later presented to the workshop.
Media law expert Justine Limpitlaw explained the present draft “Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill” and her doubts regarding its current formulation. Limpitlaw is the author of the Media Law Handbooks of Southern and Eastern Africa, published by KAS Media Africa. She believes that the bill can affect publishing criticism of the government such as satire. „What about people who repost hate speech to draw attention and criticize it? There is no distinction in the bill between that and the original post,” said Limpitlaw.
Christian Echle, Director of KAS Media Africa, presented Germany’s efforts against hate speech on Facebook. “South Africa is one step ahead in legal terms, there is no draft of a bill in Germany yet,” said Echle. Nevertheless, the German government is acting against illegal postings on Facebook. Minister of Justice Heiko Maas has been applying pressure on the company due to the ongoing refugee crisis in the country. Defamation of asylum seekers has increased on the social network in recent years. Compared to other European countries, Germany has the most online hate speech postings. Since October 2015 illegal postings have to be removed within 24 hours, otherwise Facebook would be held responsible for them. Facebook therefore commissioned 600 so-called content moderators at the Arvato company in Berlin who remove dangerous postings from the social network day and night. However, Facebook’s guidelines for illegal content remain non-transparent and controversial.
The first Facebook office on the African continent was opened in Johannesburg recently. The challenge to control numerous online postings was underlined by a representative of the office, Emilar Gandhi. Many postings are not reported as inappropriate, which is why Facebook cannot remove them immediately. The discussion also noted that South Africa’s multicultural background makes it complicated to determine which content may offend users. The nudity of a woman’s bare chest for example can be shown in public within some tribes, whereas others would not accept it. It was also stressed that African ideas often differ from American policies.
Some of the workshop participants disputed the need for the hate speech bill at all. According to them, a protection from discrimination and hate speech is already covered in Pepuda, the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act. Theresa Ross, Principal State Law Adviser, was grateful for all the inputs and undertook to pass on the criticisms that became obvious in the discussion. Ross emphasized the importance of the hate speech bill: “We have to protect freedom of speech as well as the right to dignity. We cannot run away from what we see happening in the country at the moment.”
As a sum-up, Echle reminded participants to submit objections on the bill to the Department of Justice before the end of the month. “The bill is still a battlefield and we can try to influence it,” said Echle. The South African law will be one of the first laws combating hate speech online and will play an important role internationally and it is likely to be a used as a template for other African countries.
Republic of South Africa, January 30, 2017