Recently, some persons, including some Buddhist monks, carried out a hate campaign against members of the Muslim community through public meetings and on the Internet. Several mosques have also been attacked and some Muslim traders have been targeted by unruly crowds calling upon them to close their businesses.
Should such hate speech be banned in a democracy? Liberals oppose any ban on freedom of speech. They not only uphold the right of free speech but say that trying to stamp out hate speech curtails the debate that would ultimately discredit such speech. This is the viewpoint in the western democracies. Although freedom of expression is very important there’s a fine line where our beliefs and opinions may offend others who belong to a different group. Hate speech is not as it were an intellectual debate or discussion but speech specifically directed at inciting people to violence against a particular group of people.
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1950s thought unchecked speech would fan the Hindu-Muslim violence that has marred the country’s recent history. So, he kept in place a colonial-era Penal Code that outlawed sedition, blasphemy and “outraging religious feelings.We too have similar provisions in our Penal Code but we do not invoke them against rabble rousers from the majority religious community. Of course, these provisions didn’t prevent religious violence in India. Instead, they enabled religious radicals to claim offense more easily. So Hindu extremists groups sued and goaded officials to charge India’s most famous modern painter M.F. Husain—whose controversial paintings included a nude “Mother India”. They eventually drove him out of India. Then there was Salman Rushdie and his “Satanic Verses” which was banned in India and Iran issued a fatwa urging anyone to kill him in the name of religion. The Bible says that God did not permit Cain to be killed although he had murdered his brother Abel. The culture of offense varies from country to country. So, some would argue that any such banning would be ineffective. They refer to the pamphlet published in USA, which insulted Prophet Mohamed and led to widespread rioting and attacks on US embassies although it was illegal and legal action was taken against the offender.
Today with the Internet websites and social media networks like Face Book and Twitter, hate writings can be freely propagated. The Indian government has banned or censored some 300 websites spreading communal rumours.
Canada has also banned hate speech which was defined as “any writing, sign or visible representation that advocates or promotes genocide or the communication of which by any person would constitute an offence under section 319.” The Canadian law defines genocide as the destruction of an “identifiable group.” It defines an “identifiable group” as “any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.The punishment on conviction is two years’ imprisonment for anyone who incites hatred against any identifiable group. The judge is also empowered to confiscate publications which appear to be hate propaganda. But a statement made in good faith which can be proved to be true is a valid defense for an accused.