YANGON (March 12, 2014) — The room listened in silence as an educator from Singapore, Cherian George, posed the question: “How long do we have to wait when the media crosses the line?”
George, an associate professor at Nanyang Technological University and director of the university’s Asia Journalism Fellowships, had just recounted the role of radio in the Rwandan genocide, when extremist radio stations “went to the extent of giving instructions on how to kill people and even broadcasting names of who to kill.”
George said regulation of hate speech is complicated because it brings into conflict two democratic principles: liberty and equality. “The principle of liberty offers the freedom to cause offense,” he said. “But equality tells us we need to protect vulnerable groups from speech that would harm them.”
He noted that different societies have varying thresholds when it comes to defining and regulating hate speech. “Both European and American laws say that the state has no business protecting people’s feelings,” he said, whereas “most Asian countries have laws that protect the feelings of people.” He cited a Singaporean penal code that makes it an offense to wound the feelings of another individual.
He also mentioned that there are a lot of places in Asia where the law protects people in the majority, something he said was a worrying pattern. He ended his potion of the session by saying that too often the state is “too quick to censor speech to protect the majority’s feelings.”
Michael Pan, project director of the Myanmar Media Lab, spoke about hate speech on Facebook in Myanmar. He cited a study that tracked the number of hate posts on Facebook over eight weeks and classified each by type. The study showed posts on communal violence had increased.
Pan asked how such speech on Facebook and media websites can be controlled, noting that editors often say it’s difficult to moderate all the comments due to their sheer volume. “Companies would have to employ a person just to delete and ban comments,” he said,
George responded with an example from India where the publication The Hindu closes comments on stories “that they know people will go crazy on.”
– Reporting by Lakshna Mehta, Missouri School of Journalism