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South Sudan warning for Australia's hate speech champions


In South Sudan, hundreds of innocent civilians were slaughtered earlier this month in a massacre based on ethnicity. Thousands are believed to have lost their lives since the December outbreak of a political dispute between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy president, Riek Machar. The recent victims had failed to find sanctuary where they were hiding, in hospitals and places of worship in the oil hub of Bentiu.

The UN's top humanitarian official in the country told the BBC that the scenes in Bentiu were 'perhaps [the] most shocking set of circumstances' he had ever faced. The 'piles of [bodies of] people who had been slaughtered' all appeared to be civilians.

Many of the rebels say they took up arms because of the murder of their relatives in the capital Juba at the beginning of this conflict. But significantly it appears it was hate speech broadcast on the local FM radio station that spurred them into action.

The UN deplored the broadcasts that insisted 'certain ethnic groups should not stay in Bentiu and even call[ed] on men from one community to commit vengeful sexual violence against women from another community'.

Its spokesperson called them 'especially regrettable and unfortunate, given what happened in Rwanda 20 years ago, when radio stations were used to broadcast the hate messages' that fanned the flames of tension, ultimately sparking mass ethnic killings in that country.

Radio is a particularly powerful means of mobilising a population for good or ill during various emergencies, including natural disasters and civil conflict. At such times, television tends to foster passivity, and the consumption of what is sometimes referred to as 'disaster porn'. But radio broadcasts are much more likely to fuel the imagination, transform hearts and minds, and encourage people to act.

In Australia, radio has been especially useful during bushfire and cyclone emergencies, but a curse when shock jocks have manipulated public opinion against the common good. This includes subverting action on climate change, but also fostering ethnic hatred. For Australians, news of the the role of radio hate speech in the South Sudan ethnic violence might in some way echo Alan Jones' famed message of encouragement to white Australians to take part in a 'show of force' against non-white Australians at Cronulla in 2005.

In South Sudan, the UN is doing its best to ensure the broadcast of hate messages is disallowed, with its spokesperson declaring 'we have called on relevant national state and local authorities to take all measures possible to prevent the airing of such messages'.

But in Australia, Attorney General George Brandis appears to be doing the opposite. He's in the process of establishing legal protection for those wishing to broadcast hate speech. Brandis recently asserted that 'people do have a right to be bigots', in his push to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, in the interest of allowing unfettered free speech.

Australia has its fair share of ethnic and religious animosity, but it remains largely under the surface. The recent South Sudan example shows the violence that can be caused by individuals with legal sanction to broadcast messages that wish ill on particular groups in the community. The UN says this is a freedom South Sudanese do not need. Do Australians really want it?

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. 

Image: Radio Tamazuj

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, South Sudan, George Brandis, free speech, hate speech, Section 18C, Andrew Bolt



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Existing comments

Michael - the proposed amendments to the RDA will (if passed) replace the test of "offend, insult, humiliate" with "vilify". The test of "intimidate" will remain. As A-G George Brandis has himself made clear, inciting hatred is a core concept of vilification. There are many arguments that can be made about the merits or otherwise of the proposed changes, but it is incorrect to chracterise their effect as "establishing legal protection for those wishing to broadcast hate speech" - hate speech will remain illegal. It is constructive to focus on the actual proposed changes rather than the "right to be bigots" statement by A-G Brandis, taken out of context from a Parliamentary debate - which though clearly an unfortunate choice of words politically is an accurate statement of the law as it stands today, in that the law does not proscribe what people can and cannot think. Bigorty is generally not acceptable under social mores (with some apparent exceptions, for example against Catholics) but it is not illegal.

Damian | 24 April 2014  

Damian, thanks for commenting.
- I certainly consider 'offend, insult, humiliate' to be characteristics of hate speech, and they will be protected under the changes to 18C.
- Also a broadcaster does not need to specifically urge listeners to act against a section of the community. It's enough to 'offend, insult, humiliate' the group when circumstances are volatile (e.g. target Australians of middle eastern ethnicity during 2005 Cronulla tensions). A skilled broadcaster can use insult to indirectly persuade listeners to act.
- These are the actual changes to the law that you say we should focus on. The 'right to be bigots' is what underlies them, or Senator Brandis would not have used those words in the context. He had, and still has, the opportunity to retract these words, but obviously he stands by them.
- I agree with you that bigotry is not acceptable under social mores, but we're talking about the law and not mores.

Michael Mullins | 27 April 2014  

Comparing the modifications of the RDA to the effects of alleged "hate speech" in Sudan (dubious if those involved claimed they were motivated by the murder of their relatives rather than the "hate speech"), would have to be a very fine of example of making a mountain out of a molehill.

john frawley | 28 April 2014  

The debate on amending Section 18C of the RDA continues. What motivates me to say leave it as it is is the fact that many Holocaust survivors and their families are concerned. I think your caution is wise, Michael.

Edward Fido | 28 April 2014  

john frawley 28 April 2014 " a very fine of example of making a mountain out of a molehill." ????? When there are already some tensions between different groups, it can sometimes take only a small spark to cause an inferno. When snow or ice mount up, just a noise can cause an avalanche. Even slight signs of unnecessary discrimination need to be avoided

Robert Liddy | 28 April 2014  

To compare the situation here with South Sudan is desperate and insulting. I hope you are not offended Michael? Vilification (hate speech) will remain illegal as it should. Time to give the "right to be bigots" comment a rest too. Only the truly dull of mind or those with a particular political agenda could possibly "misunderstand" and continue to misuse Brandis' clumsy attempt to explain freedom of expression.

martin.loney | 28 April 2014  

Section 18C of the RDA serves as a safety net for racial harmony. Why is there a need to repeal it?Is it to protect the shock jocks and grovelling journalists of the right so that they can mouth their own ideological biases and thus manipulate public opinion at the cost of truth? What is a real possibility is a resurgence of another Cronulla 2005 but this time with even greater consequences.both domestically and internationally. That is why the parallel with South Sudan has a scary relevance.

John Hill | 28 April 2014  

Rwanda and South Sudan might seem to be extreme examples of how tenuous civilised "mores" can actually be in human communities. What's currently going on in Ukraine and what has happened in the past in football grounds in Europe are others. Social cohesion is a precious but actually delicate matter, I think. It is true that sometimes the law can be a "rough-and-ready" means for trying to fix some societal problems; nevertheless (with education and good health services) it remains one of the pillars of our civil society. The irony, in this case seems to be, that the "contended" law has entrapped only a single "victim" -- Andrew Bold, one of the least of our society in need of this protection. When such "victims" have been so few yet, on the other side, so many individuals and community groups have protested about this legislative change, it should be considered more seriously than the Government so far seems to have done. Finally, I don't believe that Senator Brandis' remark about people having "a right to be bigots" should be too soon forgotten or exculpated as being made in the "heat" of parliamentary debate. As an experienced barrister before entering Parliament, he knows well the risks of remarks made in anger; as an experienced Senator (a less "robust" Chamber, we're often told, than the House) he should know the risks of unguarded interjections and anger. But, in any case, his logic is very flawed: it is one thing to "be" a "bigot" (the law cannot and should not deal with what goes on inside peoples minds); it is quite another to express that bigotry. And THAT is what the RDA seeks to deal with. That expression is one of many "freedoms" which -- to varying degrees -- are curtailed in the interests of the civil society.

Dr John Carmody | 29 April 2014  

Thank you Dr John. I agree wholeheartedly with your comments on the substance of A-G George Brandis' broadcast claim. The fact that he has not tried to retract or even modify his meaning illustrates that he does in fact believe that anyone should be free to "offend, insult and humiliate" another regardless of the effect on the individual or any others. Even with the current example of his colleague rendering by word refugees as illegal immigrants and unlawful migrants and the false compassion raised by his constant misrepresentations. The decision for a civil society is clear PROTECT SECTION 18 C OF THE RDA. Certainly bigots may continue to poison their thoughts and minds as they wish but let them not have the RIGHT to broadcast them in order to create problems within the society.

Michelle | 02 May 2014  

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