A call to unite efforts to combat hate speech against human rights defenders and journalists


On 20 July 2020, and on the sidelines of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s 44th session, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Network for Con the sidelines of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s 44th session, MENA Network for Countering Hate Speech call for united efforts to combat hate speech against MENA human rights defenders and journalists, countering Hate Speech organized an online side event entitled, “Hate speech against MENA human rights defenders and journalists must be tackled” which aimed at calling on the international mechanisms to take immediate action in countering hate speech across the region, with a particular focus on the use of hate speech against human rights defenders and Journalists.

The event was moderated by Khalid Ibrahim, Director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) with the participation of speakers, Roula Mikhael, Director of Maharat Foundation; Sharif Haj Ali, Projects Coordinator at MADA-Palestinian Center for Development & Media Freedoms; Yara Badr, Deputy Director of the Syrian Center for Media & Freedom of Expression (SCM); Sarah Elsheik Ali, Director of HuMENA for Human Rights & Civic Engagement; Saloua Ghazouani Oueslati, MENA Regional Director of ARTICLE 19; Sandra van Edig, Head, Middle East at Deutsche Welle (DW) Akademie; and Ma’aly Hazzaz, Coordinator of the Multi-Donor Programme on Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists at UNESCO.

Roula Mikhael, addressing the situation in Lebanon, noted a tension between diversity and freedom of expression. Legally, criticism of religion is forbidden, and public comments by human rights defenders or journalists reporting on religion have resulted in arrests. “There’s a thin line between free speech and hate speech,” she noted.

Sharif Haj Ali stated that “activists, journalists, and human rights defenders face great challenges in Palestine while covering social, political, or religious issues.” Hate speech is often aimed at them in response. However, he argued that freedom of expression is the best guarantee for democracy, putting a distinction on hate speech that threatens society.

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Yara Badr highlighted the situation in Syria. She noted that women human rights defenders and opposition activists were systematically targeted through “brutal” attacks on social media and the Syrian press. As an example, an award-winning journalist was the target of an online hate campaign asking why a woman won the award and not a man!

Sarah Elsheik Ali, speaking on Egypt, noted that “crimes against human rights defenders do not start with bullets, but rather with attacks from the media.” She noted a deterioration since President Sisi won the 2018 election. Any criticism of the government is now viewed as terrorism and responded to with hate speech.

Minority groups such as Christians are particularly vulnerable. She noted the case of LGBTQ activist Sarah Hegazy who took her own life after an extreme online hate speech campaign and torture in prison, where she served a three-month sentence for flying a rainbow flag at a Mashrou’ Leila concert.

“The situation in North Africa is not different from other countries”, said Saloua Ghazouani Oueslati. The primary targets of hate speech are vulnerable groups such as LGBTQ, women, and minority groups. “Hate speech is used as a tool to stop many groups suffering from discrimination from expressing themselves. The source is from the whole society which is not educated on tolerance and diversity. But the government is also using networks to silence human rights defenders,” she added. She mentioned that Algeria has a new law against hate speech, which is problematic as it limits all free expression in the name of protecting people.

In Tunisia, a new proposed law against hate speech is also problematic. ARTICLE 19 has focused on educating judges in the region.

Sandra van Edig said that DW Akademie is strengthening local partner organizations in the MENA region to counter hate speech and to defend the freedom of expression. Our mechanisms are Longterm strategies, innovative project development, international networking, visibility through DW, and international awards.

The Covid-19 pandemic triggered a parallel “disinfodemic”, characterized by a wave of disinformation, and hate speech said Ma’aly Hazzaz. “Countering hate speech should never be confused with suppressing free speech, and any limitations to freedom of expression must remain within strictly defined parameters flowing from the international human rights instruments. We need to tackle the root causes and drivers of hate speech, preventing it from translating into violence”, she added.”

Khalid Ibrahim, as a moderator, noted the lack of a local remedy for the use of hate speech against human rights defenders and journalists. He argued it is time for international mechanisms including the UN systems to act to put pressure on the authorities to help protect these human rights defenders and journalists.