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Interview: OSCE Media Freedom Chief Discusses Hate Speech

Miklos Haraszti (file photo) (Courtesy Photo) Should countries regulate "hate speech" and if so, how to do so in a way that does not undermine freedom of expression? That's the subject of a conference that begins on March 31 at the Central European University in Budapest. It comes just weeks after the controversy over the publication in mainly Western newspapers of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Chairing one of the conference panels will be Miklos Haraszti, the representative on freedom of the media for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). RFE/Rl correspondent Kathleen Moore spoke with Haraszti to learn more about hate-speech issues.

RFE/RL: What are the reasons for holding this conference?

Miklos Haraszti: Quite apart from the recent cartoon controversy, the OSCE has a very wide spectrum of hate-speech regulations. In fact, we could almost speak about a hate-speech-definition gap. One of them is trans-Atlantic, because Europe and the United States/Canada have quite a dissimilar philosophy of what is hate speech and how it should be regulated, curbed.

There is also a trans-Pacific one, for example; lately Russia has been very critical of the U.S. media and their handling of terrorist hate speech, as Russia sees reports and interviews with hate-inciting terrorists.

So before the cartoon issue it was already an interesting subject whether those gaps can be bridged, which is the eminent task of the OSCE, to possibly come to a joint policy on hate speech and the dangers that stem from it. The cartoon issue added a new dimension and the conference is an excellent venue to discuss them.

RFE/RL: Do you think, then, that OSCE states should have a more unified approach?

Haraszti: As a human rights defender and the only intergovernmental media watchdog on Earth, I would very much welcome one actually at the low end [less regulation] and not at the high end. I have a double mandate, actually, concerning hate speech, not only fighting it and fighting intolerance but also fighting misuse of hate speech by participating states for purposes of suppressing dissent, which does happen quite often. Under the guise of fighting ethnic, religious, or other type of intolerance or extremism, simple dissent is tackled in a classic oppressive way.

So that's my interest in the conference, but of course nobody has the illusion that such a conference can work out a unified theory of hate speech. [But] the illumination of the dilemmas would already be a great step forward to understanding.

RFE/RL: Could you clarify what you mean by a "low end" approach to hate speech -- do you mean less regulation?

Haraszti: Freedom of the media requires the maximum freedom of criticism and questioning and freedom even for unorthodox views. [But] that uncontested truth is in contradiction in quite a few states. Many [hate-speech definitions and regulations] stem from absolute good-will, because the history of those countries educated them that out of bad speech are coming more serious troubles, even wars, and of course in Europe we don't need to go back to the Second World War to totalitarian systems with hate speech against races or classes, it's enough to refer to the post-Yugoslav wars, each of them stemmed from very sharp state-sponsored hate speech in television against each other's nationalities.

RFE/RL: What lessons do you think we can draw from the recent cartoon controversy?

Haraszti: By now the wisdom has settled that these [freedom of expression and religious freedoms] are actually identical values, both historically and constitutionally the countries that provide freedom of expression are quite identical with the countries that provide freedom of religion, tolerance, and understanding. So a kind of editorial wisdom has probably also settled from the controversy, the awareness that we are living in a global world.

But on the other hand, at issue here is pluralism, not just diversity, and it does encompass criticism, discussion, questioning in a polite and civilized way [of] each other's values. That has to be maintained and mutual understanding should be enhanced, but mutual should mean not only understanding [of] religious values -- in particular to Islamic values -- but also understanding of democratic traditions of the right to question, the right to criticize, and even the right of culture to ridicule.

Clash Of Cultures

Clash Of Cultures

Indian-born writer Salman Rushdie (epa file photo)

The furor raised by the publication in Europe of cartoons believed by many Muslims to be insulting to Islam is far from being the first time that Western notions of freedom of expression have clashed with Islamic sensibilities. Below are a few of the major incidents in this long-running tension.

2005: London's Tate Britain museum removes from exhibition the "God Is Great #2" sculpture by John Latham for fear of offending Muslims, citing the "sensitive climate" after 7 July suicide bombings in London. The sculpture piece consists of three sacred religious texts -- the Koran, the Bible, and the Talmud -- embedded in a sheet of glass.

2004: Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh is murdered after release of his film "Submission" about violence against women in Islamic societies. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born member of Dutch parliament who wrote script, plans another film about Islam's attitude to gays. She has also received death threats.

2002: Nigerian journalist Isioma Daniel incenses Muslims by writing in "This Day" newspaper that Prophet Muhammad would have approved of the "Miss World" contest and might have wed a beauty queen. Muslim-Christian riots in northern city of Kaduna kill 200. Daniel flees Nigeria after a fatwa urges Muslims to kill her.

1995: An Egyptian court brands academic Nasr Hamed Abu Zaid an apostate because of his writings on Islam and annuls his marriage on grounds that a Muslim may not be married to an apostate. Abu Zaid and his wife move to the Netherlands.

1994: Taslima Nasreen flees Bangladesh for Sweden after court charges her with "maliciously hurting Muslim religious sentiments." Some Muslims demand she be killed for her book "Lajja" (Shame), banned for blasphemy and suggesting free sex.

1989: Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini calls on all Muslims to kill British author Salman Rushdie for blasphemy against Islam in his book "The Satanic Verses."

(compiled by RFE/RL)

See also:

Dutch Immigration -- The Death Of Multiculturalism

Report Says No Anti-Muslim Backlash In Europe

Vienna Conference Ends With Appeals For Understanding, Tolerance

A thematic webpage devoted to issues of religious tolerance in RFE/RL's broadcast region and around the globe.