On-line journalism – fostering a spirit of intolerance?

With on-line journalism increasingly fostering a spirit of intolerance and unaccountability, more effective regulation – including the licensing of on-line journalists – needs to be considered as a potential remedy to hate speech on-line.

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By Dusan Babic

Though the democratic character of the Internet has long been considered as something inherent to it, its destructive potential has been widely ignored, or at least regarded as collateral damage. Regarded as an unregulated frontier due to its dichotomy – a global medium, yet locally regulated – there is limited data about the Internet’s real range and impact. What is clear, however, is that online journalism is already widespread and constitutes the very future of journalism.

It is widely recognized by media experts that neither media independence, nor ethics, can be measured. The same is true of the level of neutrality and degree of balance. What exists, however, is a journalistic driving force – bona fide, or good faith. Both journalists and media owners should strive to improve professional standards, media pluralism and independence.

The complexity of the media environment, particularly in the transition countries of south eastern Europe, makes it almost impossible to make a clear distinction between professional and unprofessional journalism. The crucial point is the public interest and the way a sound media environment facilitates the full exercise of the public’s right to know. Though commercial media needs to be profit-driven, it must be fully responsible to the public in order not to affect its long-term credibility. This is especially the case with online journalism.

A distinguished colleague, the late Claude-Jean Bertrand, developed the new concept of ‘media accountability systems’ (MAS) – or the “social responsibility” of the media – where ethics equals quality. Generally speaking, the region’s media is not led by ethics; whilst in online journalism, it is almost totally ignored.

This detrimental trend was the rational for an international conference on combating hate speech in south eastern Europe, entitled ‘Living Together’, held in Sarajevo in mid-November 2011; which was organized by the Council of Europe, the Press Council in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a self-regulatory body for print and online media, and the Association of Bosnia-Herzegovina Journalists (BiH Novinari).

Although the conference encompassed a wide range of issues dealing with hate speech – including legal frameworks in-line with European standards, national regulation and practice, and the role of self-regulation in combating hate speech – the prevailing conclusion was that the Internet was largely to blame for spreading hate speech.

In 2010, I conducted monitoring of hate speech on the most visited websites – colloquially called ‘portals’ – in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. This analysis demonstrated that whilst there are glaring examples of hate speech, they are not yet a mass phenomenon. The situation has, however, deteriorated since then; both in terms of the number and extent of the examples of hate speech, mostly ethnically-motivated and a legacy of the wars of the nineties.

This study, entitled ‘The Internet – Freedom Without Boundaries?’, was a pioneering attempt to elucidate the basic trends concerning the range and impact of the Internet in the region. Over the centuries, it has become apparent that technology develops faster than the perception of its range and impact. This is particularly obvious with respect to media regulation, which significantly lags behind the pace of change, especially where the Internet is concerned.

Hate speech is real

There is no global definition of “hate speech”. What is prohibited in Europe, for example, such as denying the holocaust or propagating Nazism or Fascism, is permitted in the United States under the letter and spirit of the First Amendment. The Council of Europe defines hate speech as “all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or other forms of hatred based on intolerance, including: intolerance expressed by aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism, discrimination and hostility against minorities, migrants and people of immigrant origin.” Aside from child pornography, however, a consensus is unlikely to emerge about what constitutes illegal content, particularly where hate speech is concerned.

An additional problem is that legal provisions are often vague and open to wide or subjective interpretation. Differing views on the limits to freedom of expression have resulted in different legal responses to hate speech in Europe. According to some so-called ‘memory laws’, genocide denial, for example, constitutes a legal offense in some European countries. One should also not ignore the restrictive impact on press freedom of principles found in Article 10, Section 2, of the European Convention on Human Rights.

However, according to a new UN Report on Internet Regulation Around the World, only child pornography, incitement to violence or genocide and hate speech can be censored on the Internet. This classification additionally hampers efforts to combat hate speech effectively. Thus, how should these sensitive issues be addressed properly? Is self-regulation of online media the only remedy?

Self-regulation does not work properly

 

The very idea of self-regulation is rooted in the conviction that decision-making processes related to the media are extremely complex and, therefore, cannot be left to state bureaucrats, but instead require a specialized body of independent experts. Modern self-regulation is an American invention dating back to the twenties. The European model of self-regulation rests on a press council formula, which started in the fifties in Britain and, later, in Germany. Decisions made are based on a Code of Ethics for Journalists, but they are not legally binding. If a publication is criticized, for instance, it is called upon to publish the criticism, but it cannot be sanctioned if it refuses to do so.

In most European countries press councils have extended their remit, assuming responsibility for on-line publications too, provided they are of a journalistic nature. This is a contentious issue – how to draw a clear line between authentic journalism and its pseudo-forms which are so widespread in cyberspace? At the same time, it raises the question of who can be considered a journalist in the digital age?

The Press Council in Bosnia-Herzegovina, created in 2000, represents something of a success story in this regard. Since recently it also includes online publications, however, only a few of the most influential portals have joined to date. The Council was modelled on the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) formula, which itself is currently the subject of intense debate – about the need for its reform, its replacement with an effective self-regulatory body or even its abolishment – following the phone-hacking scandal.

It is increasingly apparent that self-regulation does not work properly, and with respect to online journalism it almost does not work at all. Many media experts argue, mostly off-the-record, that press councils should expand their mandate to include even imposing fines for blatant breaches of the Code of Ethics. Of course, this contradicts the core of self-regulation, meaning that it would then become more of a hybrid- or co-regulation system.

Globally, it is extremely difficult to envisage how modus operandi could be harmonized in order to combat online hate speech. The First Amendment to the US Constitution represents a safe haven for hate speech websites, whilst the prevailing sentiment in Europe is that it is up to citizens to decide what they wish to access and view on the Internet. Filtering of online content by governments is largely unacceptable, and should only be installed by users themselves. Any policy of filtering conflicts with the principle of free flow of information.

This is a paraphrased fragment from the 2005 Joint Declaration of the OSCE and Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), a Paris-based media watchdog, subtitled ‘Guaranteeing Media Freedom on the Internet’. Six years later, this document remains only a piece of paper. As mentioned above, the second paragraph, Article 10, of the European Convention on Human Rights, affords states a broader margin of appreciation, including exercising control over unsuitable content, which now implies dissemination through the Internet, in particular.

The OSCE Office of the Representative on Freedom of the Media recently published a study of legal provisions and practices related to freedom of expression, the free flow of information and media pluralism on the Internet in OSCE participating states. The study focuses on Internet content regulation; a sensitive, complex and tricky issue. Basically, participating states decide what is legal and illegal, bearing in mind their “different cultural, moral, religious, and historical differences and constitutional values.” It was admitted in the study that “such state-level differences complicate harmonization of laws and approaches at the international level.” The spirit of the restrictive paragraph 2, Article 10, is reformulated as, “any restrictions need to be necessary in a democratic society, and the state interference should correspond to a ‘pressing social need’”. “Pressing social need” is, however, a very imprecise phrase, subject to broader interpretation and therefore to abuse by state authorities.

I am not, however, a press freedom absolutist. Freedom of opinion is absolute, but freedom of expression is not. More than a decade ago I publicly stated that the Internet cannot remain an unregulated frontier, adding that what is illegal in traditional media must be illegal online, since message matters, not the medium. Four decades ago, the Declaration of Journalists’ Duties and Rights was adopted in Munich. The document is widely known as the Munich Charter and is still considered the journalists’ Magna carta libertatum, with its ten duties and five rights clearly indicating the profession’s priorities. Unfortunately, this is not the case with online journalism, which is increasingly fostering a spirit of intolerance and unaccountability; a trend which is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

In 2004, I presented a paper, entitled “A Global Code of Online Journalism Ethics”, at a conference in Warsaw, “The Internet with A Human Face – A Common Responsibility”, organized by the Council of Europe. I knew perfectly well that my idea was unrealistic at the time; close to cyber-utopia, a term developed by the young and prolific Evgeny Morozov in his book “The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate The World“. However, last year I discovered that my idea was partly embraced, with UNESCO sponsoring a process to develop a code of global information ethics. Despite being strongly contested by many media experts and journalists, in particular, the licensing of on-line journalists should be seriously considered as a potential remedy to instances of hate speech on-line.

Dusan Babic is a Sarajevo-based media researcher and analyst

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