Recognising and speaking out against intolerance

Public officials, including politicians, have a key role to play in recognising and promptly speaking out against intolerance and discrimination, including instances of “hate speech.” This requires recognising and rejecting the conduct itself, as well as the prejudice of which it is symptomatic, expressing sympathy and support to the targeted individuals or groups, and framing such incidents as harmful to the whole of society. These interventions are particularly important where inter-communal tensions are high, or are susceptible to being escalated, and where political stakes are also high, e.g. in the run-up to elections.

Early and effective intervention from public officials can play an important preventative role to guard against tensions escalating, deterring others from engaging in similar conduct. They can also play an important role in opening space for counter-speech by other actors, in particular those targeted by “hate speech,” as well as sympathetic allies, including the “silent majority” for whom proponents of ‘hate speech’ often claim to speak. Public officials can thus play a key role in instigating or encouraging broader dialogue which might counter intolerance and discrimination.

Further research is required to examine the circumstances in which counter-speech by public officials to instances of intolerance and discrimination is most effective. Condemnations of ‘hate speech’ may be insufficient if public officials fail to substantively and persuasively engage with the underlying anxieties and misperceptions that render parts of the public susceptible to such messages. Responses by public officials should therefore be nuanced, and go beyond denunciation to provide persuasive counter-narratives based on facts that appeal to and, where necessary, challenge the concerns or anxieties in the public. However, public officials should avoid responding to incidents of ‘hate speech’ where to do so would give undue attention to the positions of fringe individuals or groups that are not influential to public discourse.

Importantly, public officials should be instructed on the importance of avoiding statements that might promote discrimination or undermine equality, and must understand the dangers of trivialising violence or discrimination, including in the form of ‘hate speech’, as well as the possibility of silence in the face of such challenges equating to tacit endorsement. In this regard, public bodies should have in place clear rules governing the conduct of individuals speaking in their capacity as public officials. Ethical codes and “no discrimination” policies adopted by political parties should also be considered as positive policy measures.

Equality training

Building trust in the capacity of public institutions to tackle intolerance and discrimination requires public officials to be fully aware of the nature and impact of discrimination on different individuals and groups, and to be fully committed to promoting equality.

States should provide trainings for public officials, public figures and state institutions on the rights to equality and non-discrimination, particularly where discrimination is institutionalised, or has historically gone unchallenged. Priority contexts should include schools and other educational settings, the armed forces, the police, the judiciary, the medical profession, legal services, political associations or religious institutions.

Equality training may form part of a broad range of measures designed to tackle institutionalised discrimination, and should be clearly communicated to the public to demonstrate where efforts are underway to build trust in institutions.

Public policy for pluralism and equality in the media

All States should ensure that a public framework and regulatory framework for diverse and pluralistic media is in place, which promotes pluralism and equality, in accordance with the following:

  • The framework should respect the fundamental principle that any regulation of the media should only be undertaken by bodies which are independent of the government, are publicly accountable, which operate transparently; and
  • The framework should promote the right of different communities to freely access and use media and information and communications technologies for the production and circulation of their own content, as well as for the reception of content produced by others, regardless of frontiers.

This framework should be implemented, among others, through the following measures:

  • Promoting universal and affordable access to the means of communication and reception of media services, including telephones, the Internet and electricity;
  • Eliminating discrimination in relation to the right to establish newspapers, radio and television outlets, and other communications systems;
  • Allocating sufficient ‘space’ to broadcasting uses on different communications platforms to ensure that, as a whole, the public is able to receive a range of diverse broadcasting services;
  • Making an equitable allocation of resources, including broadcasting frequencies, among public service, commercial and community media, so that together they represent the full range of cultures, communities and opinions in society.
  • Requiring the governing bodies of media regulators broadly to reflect society as a whole;
  • Putting in place effective measures to prevent undue concentration of media ownership;
  • Providing public support, whether financial or in other forms, through an independent and transparent process, and based on objective criteria, to promote the provision of reliable, pluralist and timely information for all, and the production of content which makes an important contribution to diversity or which promote dialogue among different communities.
  • Repealing any restrictions on the use of minority languages that have the effect of discouraging or preventing media specifically addressed to different communities;
  • Making diversity, including in terms of media targeting different communities, one of the criteria for assessing broadcasting license applications; and
  • Ensuring that disadvantaged and excluded groups have equitable access to media resources including training opportunities.

Public service values in the media should be protected and enhanced by transforming State- or government-controlled media systems, by strengthening existing public service broadcasting networks, and by ensuring adequate funding for public service media, so as to ensure pluralism, freedom of expression, and equality in an ever-changing media landscape.

Public education and information campaigns

Public information and education campaigns are essential in combating negative stereotypes of, and discrimination against individuals on the basis of their protected characteristics. Such campaigns, based on accurate information, can dispel popular myths and misconceptions, and equip individuals with greater confidence to identify and challenge manifestations of intolerance in their day-to-day interactions.

In particular, public information and education campaigns should be integrated into primary, secondary and tertiary education, complemented by concrete anti-bullying policies, including the provision of support services for victims of bullying, including peer-led initiatives. In particular, attention should be paid to ensuring diversity in school materials and the avoidance of school textbooks containing stereotypes and prejudices against particular groups.

Transformative justice

In the aftermath of large scale human rights violations, including widespread and systematic discrimination, mechanisms for guaranteeing truth, justice, reconciliation and reparations have proven to be a positive extra-judicial means for establishing an authoritative and shared interpretation of the “truth” behind historical events, providing a basis for reconciliation in fractured societies.

By contrast, where open and inclusive discussions and critical debate on historical events are suppressed in favour of unilaterally declared or legally enforced “truths”, underlying resentment and distrust between different communities can endure and pose a danger of conflicts reoccurring.

States can play an important role in officially and publicly recognising the impact and legacy of incidents, or systemic problems of discrimination or violence, as well as symbolically marking certain events or times to overcome and ensure redress for respective incidents. This is often done by dedicating public sites, such as monuments, museums and in community meeting areas, and broader efforts to help people come to terms with and comprehend what has happened.