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Friday, May 07, 2010
Hate speech, free speech, and lese majeste law
Throughout the current political crisis the mainstream mass media has been under fire for playing along with state demonisation of the red shirts, which fans up hatred instead of fostering understanding for peace moves.
Indeed, the media must seriously rethink its role in times of conflict. But in a complex political situation, with many political actors and factors at play, isn't it simplistic to single out the mass media for blame?
True, the mainstream print and electronic media could have done much better to give the big picture of the problem through analyses and investigative reports, instead of reporting only the surface of daily phenomena and getting lost in sensationalism.
True, the mass media have largely lost touch with the rapid social and political changes as well as the needs of people on the streets.
The readers expect journalists to know what is going on, to offer a balanced view and to predict the possible turn of events. But mostly we cannot because we know only fragments of the whole picture. Also, the newsrooms are not free from the political divide. It is not unusual that in the same newspaper some writers are "red" and others are pro-government, making the general readers confused as to what the "truth" really is.
Which is better? The readers looking for truth and listening to both sides of the story in the same paper? Or each opposing side consuming only the media of their political leanings and unquestioningly accepting everything the movement's leaders say as the truth?
Have you ever listened to these so-called "alternative" political media's routine rhetoric of demonisation to incite hatred, public mayhem and violence?
"What has happened that makes us hate one another so intensely just because of different political views?" You must have heard this question countless times.
Who should we blame this on? The mainstream media? The readily available mass communications technologies - from satellite and cable TV to community radios and the borderless internet - which have been abused as political propaganda tools? The lack of regulations governing hate speech? Our human weakness to selectively listen to only what agrees with our beliefs? If anything, the most lethal is our social immaturity - the lack of tolerance and the tendency to react violently to perceived threats.
This is where the need to balance public reverence for the monarchy and the freedom of expression comes in.
Apart from being the mouthpiece of Thaksin Shinawatra and their gangster-style rally, one of the reasons the reds' social injustice message got lost with many Thais is their attacks on the royal institution. The anti-reds' anger is not only focused on the many accusations, but also on how some red speakers and publications spiced their allegations with insult, ridicule and vulgarity.
When hearsay, half-truths and lies are used to demonise, arouse hatred and violate what others hold as sacred, this practice cannot be excused as free speech. It is hate speech.
Amid our deeply divisive politics, any form of hate speech should not be tolerated. Nor the use of royalism as a political tool to destroy rivals and the violent reactions to perceived violations.
In our internet age, however, the mass media is no longer limited to organisations. Every person is now the medium when sharing information online and a potential hate-monger when he or she forwards hate-mail or encourages a witch-hunt, which is now rife in social media networks.
Since PM Abhisit Vejjajiva's peace road map includes the protection of the monarchy and media sensibility, it is wise to recognise that in a fragmented society governed by different loyalties, hate speech is an assault on peace, and the present form of lese majeste laws prevents rational discussion on the royal institution, allowing easy abuse while pushing dissent underground.
Hate speech in all forms and media channels must not be allowed. The rules for rational discussion on the royal institution must be drawn, to strike a balance between respect for cultural sensitivity, public sensibility and freedom of expression. This is a crucial issue which must not be dodged if we aim for peace and long-term protection of the revered institution.
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