Dangerous Speech as Source of Election-Related Violence

By Abubakar Jimoh
It has been argued that persuasion is better than force as a means of drawing public support or attention, that good book and good argument can improve the soul, yet the intuition remains that some speeches are in fact dangerous.
In linguistic perspective meanings are inherent in words, while such would be interpreted based on existing cultural and socio-linguistic context.  In the words of Jim Aune, American blogger, “dangerous speech” exists when a high-ethos sender delivers a factually inaccurate yet emotionally inflammatory message in a self-contained contact and context to receivers with a high level of anxiety in an unusually polarized historical context.
Although it is a well-known fact that under Section 39 (1) of the 1999 Constitution of Federal Republic of Nigeria, every person is entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference. However, experience has shown that freedom of expression occasionally gives room to dangerous speech, which incites violence.
Nigeria is a signatory to the 2013 AU African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, an international legal instrument, which recognizes among other things freedoms of information and expression for citizens of member countries.
Speech is most often prohibited under international law for its possible consequences and capacity to result in an internationally unacceptable secondary effect, such as violence or genocide. This informed the opinion of Antoine Buyes, who wrote in Cambridge’s Journal of International and Comparative Law in 2014, where he provides three legal justifications that could traditionally pose restriction to freedom of expression. These are prevention of breaches of speech and protecting public orders; protection of targeted group, both regarding its members’ feeling and physical safety; and curtailment of speech to avert what society deems inappropriate.
So far, democracies have long struggled with the issue of restriction to expression of ideas and beliefs. It would be recalled that during 399 BC back in ancient Greece, the Athenians, who cherished individual freedom, nevertheless prosecuted Socrates for his teachings, claiming that he had corrupted young people through his teaching and insulted the gods.
In modern world, exceptions to free speech are provided in some countries like United States, where certain limitations to free speech and expressions are recognized by the Supreme Court. These exceptions have been created over time, based on certain types of speech and expression, and under different contexts. While freedom of speech in the United States is a constitutional right, these exceptions make that right a limited one. In this case, speech that involves incitement, false statements of fact, obscenity, child pornography, threats, and speech owned by others are all completely exempt protections.
Also, in Saudi Arabia, individual rights to freedom of speech are banned by the government; and any speech or public demonstration that is deemed to be immoral or may subject its national unity to danger can lead to imprisonment or corporal punishment.
More importantly, many writers have observed dangerous speech as a phenomenon which emanates from hate speech.  For instance, Joyce Arthur, a Canadian activist and writer, in a piece titled “Argument – Should hate speech be a crime?” offers to explain the point at which speech becomes dangerous. She wrote: “Hate speech is dangerous because words have power and can influence others to act. The assassinations of abortion providers in the US prove that words do not have to incite violence explicitly to cause violence. Hate speech promotes division and intolerance; it harms and marginalizes the vulnerable groups it targets. Free speech is exercised largely by the privileged at the expense of the unprivileged who do not have a level ground on which to respond.”
Experience has revealed that elections trigger inflammatory speech because they are analogous to battles, targeted to one opposition or another. This presents basic challenges in distinguishing between political speech, which constitutes the exercise of a human right, and remains essential for effective democracy; and the best practices for limiting dangerousness in speech, without curbing the exercise of freedom of expression.
Deliberating on how dangerous speech form a rudiment of violence, Susan Benesch, a Political scientist and Project Director at World Policy Institute reveals that inflammatory public speech rises steadily before outbreaks of mass violence, suggesting that it is a precursor or even a prerequisite for violence, which makes sense: groups of killers do not form spontaneously. “In most cases, a few influential speakers gradually incite a group to violence”.
Benesch provides five fundamental qualitative variables to discern the dangerousness of speech, offering a useful model for analyzing hate speech case studies. These include the level of a speaker’s influence, the grievances or fears of the audience, whether or not the speech act is understood as a call to violence, the social and historical context, and the way in which the speech is disseminated.
The facts raise by the Project Director was evident in Kenya and Rwanda…. In the past two decades, Rwanda and Kenya have experienced considerable violence. The two countries remain useful case studies to discern when and how hate speech becomes dangerous speech.  For instance, provocative role of Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines in the Rwandan genocide has been widely condemned, as it offers a definitive example of dangerous speech. The radio was reportedly encouraging people to participate in genocide because it said ‘the enemy is the Tutsi’—the minority population constituted 14%. United Human Rights Council estimated that some 200,000 people participated in the perpetration of the genocide, which by April, 1994, left 800,000 men, women, and children perished.
Similarly, In Kenya, the media, particularly local language radio, have been accused of being responsible for fuelling ethnic hatred and violence in the aftermath of the 2005 referendum campaign and 2007 presidential elections. Local language radio stations were reportedly routinely partisan and unethical. The extent at which talk shows provided the greatest opportunities for dangerous speech was widely reported. IRI reported that immediately after elections’ results were announced, gangs of youths blocked Kenya’s main roads and set fire to hundreds of homes of perceived ‘outsiders’, resulting in the death of more than 1,200 people and some 600,000 displaced into temporary camps, with an equal number seeking refuge with friends or relatives.
In order to prevent dreadful impact of violence that emanate from dangerous speech, perpetrators must be held accountable, following a concrete proof that speech can be shown to induce violence. It has been recommended that violence may be prevented by interfering with the process through inhibiting the speech, limiting its dissemination, undermining the credibility of the speaker, or inoculating the audience against the speech so that it is less influential, or dangerous.

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