Dear journalists, what time is it?
Written by Zarko Trajanoski, MA in Human Rights
‘The journalist will not intentionally create or process information endangering human rights or freedoms, will not use hate speech and encourage violence and discrimination on any grounds (national, religious, racial, gender, social, language-based, sexual orientation, political… ).’ (Code of journalists of Macedonia, AJM)
Freedom of expression entails responsibility
One of the ethical obligations of journalists is to recognize hate speech and speech that encourages violence and discrimination of any kind, and to disassociate themselves from it. Therefore, it is necessary for journalists to be familiar with the most important rulings of the European Court of Human Rights related to hate speech.
According to Mirjana Lazarova Trajkovska, a judge at the European Court of Human Rights, the court ‘prioritizes freedom of expression in the context of political debate and believes that the political discourse should not be limited without strong reasons’ in order to prevent the disappearance of criticism. However, this freedom is not absolute and requires ‘politicians during their political speeches to avoid giving comments that could lead to intolerance’ (Incal vs. Turkey, GS ruling from 09/06/1998 on appeal no. 22678/93).
Journalists should know that in general, the penalization of hate speech during an election campaign is not a violation of the right to freedom of expression. For example, during the election campaign in Belgium, leaflets with these slogans were distributed: ‘prevent the Islamization of Belgium’, ‘Stop the shameful policy of integration’, ‘Job seekers who are not from Europe should be sent home’, etc. The politician from the Belgian political party ‘National front’ who was responsible for the distribution of the leaflets was convicted for inciting racism, hatred and discrimination, after he was stripped of his parliamentary immunity. In 2006, the politician was sentenced to an alternative measure (community service, in connection with the integration of immigrants) and he was deprived of the right to be a member of the parliament for a certain period of time. For example, for the leaflet ‘Assassinations in the United States, it is the Ku Klux Klan’, the Belgian Court of Appeals held that such representation, with which all Muslims are associated with terrorism, constitutes incitement to hatred towards all members of that group.
After the convicted politician complained in Strasbourg, the European Court held that:
‘Even though in the electoral context political parties must enjoy broad freedom of expression in the attempt to persuade the voters, in the case of racist or xenophobic speech that exact context contributes to the spread of hatred and intolerance…’“,
‘the impact of racist and xenophobic speech then becomes greater and more damaging.’
One of the main points of the court is that the electoral process cannot be a justification for using a vocabulary that encourages racial discrimination and hatred, despite the fact that political speech requires a higher level of protection. (Féret vs. Belgium)
Responsibility of the journalists and media in terms of using hate speech
Can the journalists be punished for using hate speech, for example, because of the statements given by other persons in an interview? The question is controversial.
According to the European Court of Human Rights:
‘Punishing a journalist for assisting in the dissemination of statements made by other persons in an interview would seriously impede the media in contributing to the debate on matters of public interest and such restriction should not be imposed, unless there are no particularly serious reasons for it’. (Jersild vs. Denmark)
This is why the court held that there was a violation of the right to expression of the Danish journalist, who was punished for the dissemination of racist statements in a TV documentary. The opinion prevails that the purpose of the documentary was not to propagate racist views and ideas, but to inform the public about a social problem.
The ruling itself was controversial, among other things, because four judges had an opposite opinion. According to them, the same that applies for racists (who are not covered by the protection of the right to freedom of expression) ‘must also apply for the reporters who present such statements and comment to support or approve such statements.’
However, the European Court of Human Rights found liability of the media in the SÜREK v. TURKEY (No. 1) case on using hate speech. Namely, the court did not accept the appeal of a media owner, who was fined for inciting enmity and hatred among the people, because he enabled the publication of two letters from readers. The court held that one of the letters cited specific individuals by name, inciting hatred towards them and exposing them to the possible risk of physical violence. Although the court finds that the owner of the media is not personally related to the views in the letters, he did allow the ones who have written them to spark violence and hatred. The court did not accept the claim that the owner only had a commercial, but not an editorial connection with the publication.
Unawareness of hate speech as a generator of hate crimes
‘Ruthless politicians and unscrupulous academics, supported by obedient journalists can conduct successful campaigns of hatred and violence based on twisted theories of superiority, and the proof for this is the ethnic cleansing and genocide in Africa and the Balkans in the 90s of last century.’ (ethical journalism and human rights)
According to the ‘Handbook for ethics in journalism’ , published by the AJM , ‘hate speech is discordant with journalistic ethics’:
‘The media and the journalist should not publish material (information, photograph, opinion, comment) aiming to spread enmity or hatred, or if there is a high probability that the published material will cause enmity or hatred towards someone because of their race, ethnicity , sex, religion, political affiliation, sexual orientation, physical disability, etc…’
Journalists are always faced with an ethical challenge whether and how they should report on hate speech and hate crimes. In general, broadcasters may not broadcast content that is targeted towards ‘a violent overthrow of the constitutional order of the Republic of Macedonia or encouraging or calling for military aggression or sparking ethnic, racial, gender or religious hatred and intolerance.’
However, in the case of such content, ‘broadcasters can exercise their right to inform the public by disassociating themselves from the content, or provide an additional factual and critical context, thereby reducing the negative connotation or accusations in the content.”
For example, when the media reported on the violent protest held in front of the government on March 1, 2013, part of the media showed videos of how the protesters chanted slogans that incite hatred and violence. However, most of the journalists who decided to publish the footage with chants failed to denounce and repudiate the offensive language that promotes hatred, violence and discrimination. They also failed to connect hate speech with violence, and to bring up the following issues of public interest:
- Why are we only punishing violence, and ignoring the hate speech that sparks violence?
- Why don’t we have rigorous statutory provisions in Macedonia for hate crimes, as there are in other countries?
In addition, MIA’a report, which was presented by several media without using any criticism, does not inform that the protests were accompanied by ethnically based hate speech. The article “Detained participants from the incident before the Government notes that ‘several officers complained of sustaining injuries during the incident’ and ends by referencing the ‘initial information at the scene of the incident’ according to which ‘there was an ambulance vehicle at the scene, but it was still not confirmed whether there are injured people.”
Afterwards, other media reported about ‘Injured citizens and police officers’ (Nova TV) , ‘There are injured police officers and citizens in the incident’ (Plusinfo) and that ‘they managed to attack and beat up a few Albanian bystanders’ (MKD.MK and Sitel) . Unlike the Macedonian language media, which did not report on the situation of the victims of violence, Alsat reported about ‘Violent fans, five young Albanians in the hospital’ (Dhuna nga tifozët, 5 të rinj shqiptarë në spital, Alsat), two of which were taken to the intensive care unit.
False and hasty generalizations
‘Please try to avoid generalizations based on race, sex, age, religion, ethnicity, residence, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.’ (The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics)
Some of the professional ethical standards are related to the avoidance of stereotyping for different reasons. In a divided society, such as the Macedonian, journalists should be particularly cautious not to fall into the trap of ‘false generalization.’
A textbook example of false generalization is the TV newscast ‘Albanians care for their own, but are silent for battered Macedonians’ (March 5, 2013), broadcasted in the ‘Kanal 5’ news, which became the focus of journalistic sensationalism. Clips from the newscast were posted in several media, with sensationalistic headlines: VIDEO: ‘Mister Kanal 5, what time is it? (Netpress) VIDEO: An uninvited intruder in the ‘Kanal 5’ news (Kurir), Drunk passer-by in the ‘Kanal 5’ news (Republika), An uninvited guest in the ‘Kanal 5’ news! Excuse me, what time is it? (VIDEO) (Vecer).
The sensationalist media approach was focused on the ‘uninvited guest’, and completely ignored the title of the TV newscast, as a blatant example of unethical framing via false generalization. Namely, the mentioned article does not address the biased question of the subheading ‘Why are Albanian media in the country and in the region reporting only about beaten Albanians, avoiding to mention that Macedonians are also victims of violent Albanians?. The title does not refer to the ‘Albanian media’ but to the ‘Albanians’ in general.
Let us recall another ethical implication from the ‘Handbook for ethics in journalism’:
‘When informing about ethnic groups, the journalist must not forget that they are composed of individuals with diverse views and experiences and must not be generalized.’
Responsibility for statements from sources
‘The journalist is also responsible for the statements of the interviewees, because the journalist makes their views public, so he is obliged to rephrase them or disassociate himself/herself from offensive language, promotion of stereotypes or discrimination.’ (‘Handbook for ethics in journalism’)
An ethical journalist is careful and disclaims any kind of hate speech and intolerance that can be harmful, according to the principle ‘Minimize the damage’.
Many journalists did not dissociate themselves from the xenophobic outbursts of the prime minister; instead, they presented them without any criticism, and even amplified them in their headlines.
Several media presented the inflammatory statement of a Kosovo expert (without any disassociation and criticism): …’the same Slavic fascism that caused the wars in the 90s is being revived again…’
Most of the journalists did not dissociate themselves or condemn the derogatory statements and negative stereotypes of the Mayor of Ohrid (based on racial and sexual orientation), but strengthened and disseminated them in the titles of their articles.
The numerous examples of unethical reporting, as opposed to the few cases of journalists who openly and fearlessly oppose the unethical journalism, provide a special ethical implication to the question ‘What time is it indeed, dear journalists?