Do Canadians really need censorship to protect themselves from hate?

***** Written by Melanie Gallant and Selin Murat ********

In his preface to Animal Farm, George Orwell states: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear” . Voltaire espoused a similar philosophy when he said: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” . But should society, and more precisely governments, be allowed to intervene when the freely expressed ideas of one citizen become defamatory and express hatred against another? Although in certain instances this question appears quite easy to answer, for example the use of “Hate Radio” in the Rwandan Genocide, others are not so black and white and highly debatable, such as the revocation of Quebec City radio station CHOI-FM’s broadcasting license by the CRTC. Moreover, not only is this a litigious question, but also any actions taken to limit or control sources of public information create important precedents that cannot be overlooked. In this paper, we present these two issues of broadcast censorship from opposite ends of the spectrum to demonstrate that the freedom of speech versus incitement to hate debate has obvious and not so obvious answers.

An International Perspective: Hate Radio in Rwanda

Leading up to the Rwandan genocide, the Hutu majority used a popular national radio to incite ethnic hatred of the Tutsi minority. During the genocide of an estimated 800 000 Tutsi, the radio broadcast helped identify the location of the victims, names of their supporters while encouraging Hutus to do their ‘work’ . In his essay “The Media Dichotomy”, General Romeo Dallaire, who led the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda from during the time of the genocide, reports that: “The local media, particularly the extremist radio station Radio-Télévision Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM), were literally part of the genocide. The genocidaires used the media like a weapon. The haunting image of killers with a machete in one hand and a radio in the other never leaves you” .
Referred to as “Hate Radio”, Rwandan leaders of the genocide did not hesitate to instill and incite hatred, violence and death on the airwaves. Most agree that this kind of broadcasting content would instantly validate censorship. In the case of Rwanda however, the issue was debated internationally but never actualized. Human rights organizations appealed to the United States, France and the United Nations to help jam the radio signals of the RTLM as they knew “that jamming radio broadcasts would disrupt incitements to genocidal violence and would limit the delivery of genocidal directives” . However when the United States debated jamming RTLM’s signal, it was decided, “…this would amount to a violation of state sovereignty…” . Considering the state was not about to disrupt a broadcast that suited their purposes, the private RTLM continued till the end of the genocide to facilitate the carrying out of this massive genocide.

In the 13 years that have passed since the events in Rwanda, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) has recognized the importance of the radio in the conflict. As a result, Rwandan media was held accountable and prosecuted for its role in the genocide. On December 3rd, 2003, a guilty verdict was rendered in the ‘Media Trial’, held before the ICTR. Ferdinand Nahimana and Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza, the directors of RTLM, were found guilty of genocide, direct and public incitement to commit genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide and crimes against humanity (persecution and extermination) . In 1999, former President Bill Clinton also issued a new bill that allowed immediate foreign intervention on broadcast that was deemed hateful or inciting violence .

Local Issues: shock jocks in Canada

The case of the Rwandan genocide is an extreme example of radio’s hate speech and its impact on a population. However, an interesting development in peaceful democratic states of the Western world has led sate sanctioned airwave watchdogs stat to silence radio broadcasts whose comments could be deemed to incite violence as well.
As per Prof. Frank Chalk, Ph.D., History, University of Wisconsin, whose current research concentrates on radio broadcasting and how it incites violations of human rights: “Radio has been one of the great forces for social and political mobilization in the twentieth century”. It is thus easy to understand why the emergence of “Shock Jocks”, radio broadcasters that purposefully use offensive and often sexist, racist or homophobic rhetoric on the air, is of concern to not only the North-American public, but also the broadcast licensing commissions. Internationally famous “Shock Jock” Howard Stern was forced to move his previously public show to satellite broadcast in 2004 after Clear Channel Communications were fined $495,000 USD for comments made by Stern on their airwaves. Satellite broadcasts are not subject to the same FCC (Federal Communications Commission) regulations as public radio. Howard Stern has often engaged in the censorship debate, stating that: “It is pretty shocking that governmental interference into our rights and free speech takes place in the U.S., … It’s hard to reconcile this with the land of the free and the home of the brave”.
Outspoken radio morning show host with CHOI-FM from 1997 to 2004, Jeff Fillion is perhaps the Quebecois version of Howard Stern. At his peak, he was the most listened to broadcaster in Québec City, his politically incorrect and contentious discourse prevailing. A listening audience of close to half a million French Canadians, Fillion was warned by the CRTC (Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission) to tone down his speech due to some 92 complaints received in the last seven years of their broadcast license . When Fillion’s attitude didn’t change, the radio frequency was not given its license renewal in 2004. As reported by a CBC article in March of 2005: “In its decision not to renew the license for CHOI-FM, the CRTC said that comments made by its hosts “tended or were likely to expose individuals or groups of individuals to hatred or contempt on the basis of mental disability, race, ethnic origin, religion, color or sex” .
The case of Jeff Fillion has sparked numerous debates on the issue of freedom of expression and choice. Enn Raudsepp, head of the journalism department at Montreal’s Concordia University, told the CBC: “A lot of things get said which we don’t agree with,” Raudsepp told CBC News. “If we start making these kinds of decisions, where do you draw the line? Who gets shut out next?” Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, Andrée Boucher, former radio show host believes the CRCT decision “a reasonable restriction on freedom of expression. I think it’s not exact to confuse liberty of expression with the liberty to say everything about everybody,” In August of 2004, five thousand CHOI-Fm supporters gathered on Parliament Hill claiming freedom of expression and choice, hoping to pressure the government to reverse the CRTC ruling. The Minister of Culture and Heritage at the time, Liza Frulla, responded that the government was incapable of intervening in the CRTC decision and the decision has held strong. Genex Communications was forced to sell its control of CHOI-FM as Fillion was ejected from the airwaves.
While the CRTC may have control of public airwaves, Jeff Fillion has joined Howard Stern to a territory off limits to its control, the Internet. Fillion continues his famous morning show online and is free to rant on any subjects he desires without censorship.

Freedom of Expression: What are its limits?

The issue of Jeff Fillion opens the debate as to where to draw the line between freedom of speech and incitement of hatred. During it’s news coverage of the issue, CBC interviewed both supporters and critics of CHOI-FM, the first claiming that the CRTC should not have the right to control what people choose to listen to, the second indicating that words are not just words, that words can kill.
In Rwanda, people were indeed killed. In the years leading to the genocide, the RTLM announcers gradually introduced an anti-Tutsi discourse slowly conditioning listeners to believe in “the inherent differences between Hutu and Tutsi, the foreign origin of Tutsi and, hence, their lack of rights to claim to be Rwandan, RTLM repeatedly and forcefully underlined many of the themes developed for years by the extremist on the disproportionate share of wealth and power held by Tutsi and the horrors of past Tutsi rule”. Radio here was an obvious agent of hate that naturally moved into inciting violence and ultimately the genocide. Following the realization that radio could be used in such a way, the international community was quick to reevaluate the sovereign right to broadcast on airwaves, establishing safeguards to ensure that when freedom of speech turns into the incitement to hate, swift censorship is justifiable.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission made the decision in 2004 that Jeff Fillion’s shock talk rhetoric had the capacity to “expose individuals or groups of individuals to hatred or contempt on the basis of mental disability, race, ethnic origin, religion, colour or sex” . The CRTC used examples to demonstrate Fillion’s hateful discourse, namely that “psychiatric patients should be euthanized, that African students at Laval University are the children of brutal dictators” . Based on this decision, Jeff Fillion’s radio station’s license was not renewed, effectively censoring him. According to the CRTC then, freedom of speech in Canada is a privilege not a right and Fillion had abused this privilege with hateful comments.
Is the CRTC justified in censoring Fillion based on these claims? Were Fillion’s comments capable of inciting hate or merely crude, rude and politically incorrect? Professor Frank Chalk of the Montreal institute for genocide and human rights studies claims that radio is a powerful tool for social mobilization when certain conditions are fulfilled, namely that the media chosen to convey a message is new to an audience that has limited access to other sources of information. The message bears more weight if emphasizing an existing crisis. Finally, the target audience readily accepts the information at face value. While these conditions apply to Rwanda, they certainly don’t represent Canadian society at all. Radio is a well-established communications medium in Canada catering to every subculture, political and religious affiliation. Furthermore, written press, television, and particularly the Internet offer a whole spectrum of information and widely differing points of view. Whether Canada is in state of crisis is debatable. Critics of Fillion would argue that his comments on homosexuals, women, ethnic minorities, the physically or mentally challenged, fuel an existing discrimination of these entities. However Fillion’s supporters would claim in the words of Howard Stern, that “if freedom of expression must mean anything it must include the freedom to offend. Free societies handle offensive speech by ignoring or arguing against it, not banning it” .
The media in Rwanda demonstrated the need to listen to broadcast and recognize incitement to hate in time to stop a crisis from escalating. International agencies have committed to safeguards to ensure that freedom of speech does not sanction hate. In Canada in 2007, it seems exaggerated that the CRTC could use the same pretext to silence a voice that while undeniably distasteful is simply not as dangerous. From a Canadian perspective, we need to be able to tune out ourselves rather than let the CRTC do it for us.

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