Free expression can counter hatred and extremism

The fight against extremism is compatible with freedom of expression. This was the common thread among six panellists in a session at the UNESCO International Conference on ‘Youth and the Internet: Fighting Radicalization and Extremism’ held in UNESCO on 16 and 17 June.

Chair of UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication, Albana Shala, moderated the discussion, which gave particular attention to the role of the media:

  • Larry Kilman of the World Association of Newspapers described good practice with media companies that have clear guidelines for online commentary, and in terms of which they moderate content to ensure a civil conversation.
  • Remzi Lani of the Albania Media Institute warned that if mainstream media practised “hate silence”, this tended to drive hate speech into “echo-chambers” in social media. Balkan wars had ended on the ground 15 years ago, but tension was continuing with a new generation on the Internet.
  • Media and social media are unwittingly helping ISIS recruitment, said Iraqi journalist Dana Asaad, who criticized the reportage of only a small part of the reality. “Media should show the peaceful sides of Islam, and cover the stories of victims of ISIS,” he said.

State responses were discussed by Gabrielle Guillemin of the NGO Article 19. She highlighted that any website blocking should be exceptional and adhere to international standards for freedom of expression. Courts rather than law enforcement bodies should make the determination.

The need for states to promote Media and Information Literacy in schools was urged by Olunifesi Adekunle Suraj of Lagos State University. He said that this form of empowerment was needed because protectionist steps were not working.

Research and conceptual clarity is critical, said Oxford University academic Iginio Gagliardone, who is also lead author of a new UNESCO study released at the event.  

In order to counter hate speech online, both the causes and the actual impact have to be understood, he said. Social context was vital to assessing whether there was really a risk of harm arising from incidents of hate speech online.