Author Archives: minorityrights

Back to naivety. Confessions of a journalist after visiting Uganda

paulinaPaulina Pacula is journalist from Poland. She recently travelled with MRG to Uganda under the Minority Realities Programme. Here she recounts how meeting Batwa was a life changing experience which made her understand the basics of her profession again, and adopt naivety as a way of thinking.

I feel a little bit ashamed to admit what I’m about to say. Maybe I should speak only for myself, but at the same time I tend to think that I’m not the only one beating their breast about how in our everyday work, with all the hurry and routine, we journalists forget to ask ourselves the most important questions.

Which questions? I’ll come to that….

Journalism is about the mission, but you know how it really is. In planning the story we have to think, ’Will people be interested in this subject so they click, buy or stay on our TV channel? Is this story exclusive enough to impress the audience or make other media quote us and make our brand stronger?’

Clicking, buying and watching are the most important activities of the audience from an economics point of view. They all mean money – the more people click, buy, watch, the more advertisements we get and business can go on. Because it’s all about business, isn’t it?

But it’s difficult to admit that out loud. Why? Because we journalists are ambitious people. We don’t like to do things the easy way and of course we don’t do our job for the media owners to earn money. No! We have a mission. Only sometimes the reality makes us forget this.

However I am lucky. I was reminded about it during a recent trip with MRG to Uganda. We visited two Batwa communities – indigenous people of Central and East Africa, who for the last five thousand years have lived in the rainforest along with colobus monkeys, chimpanzees and mountain gorillas. Unfortunately in the 1990s they were evicted by the Ugandan government to make way for a national park.

What happens to them today? Those who were lucky enough to get a piece of land as a form of compensation from the government or from an NGO live outside the forest. That makes them totally unable to continue with traditions as all of their religious, social and health practices were connected with their natural habitat. They are traumatized, vulnerable and they have no voice. But at least they are not starving as they can grow some food.

Those who haven’t got any land live in slums around bigger towns. Deprived of everything, they live in shacks made from garbage and burn old tires to warm up and cook food. Most of them die before reaching forty, not to mention that almost every woman has an experience of losing a child as the level of child mortality is so high.


Batwa man in a slum on the outskirts of the town on Kisoro
Credit: Paulina Pacula

Seeing all of this made me feel overwhelmed. I was no longer thinking as I had at the beginning of this trip, ’Oh, this is so great, I’m going to bring all these amazing, exotic, exclusive stories back to Europe.’

Instead of that I had this word jumping in to my head: responsibility. What is my responsibility towards these people? What can I do to help them? Had I lost my faith in journalism? Could my stories change anything?

And the person who enlightened me was Lee Kanyare-Kaguongo, the director of the Ugandan Media Academy, and our lecturer during the MRG training workshop on ethical reporting in Kampala. When we came back from the visit to the Batwa communities and the next day we were sitting and discussing our stories, he kept asking this question to all of us, ‘What will be the impact of your story?’

The impact of my story. What a brilliant question!

I was lost, because I didn’t feel sense in my work. And suddenly I got it. What do you want to be the outcome of your story? What do you want to achieve with it? That basically means, what do you write it for?


Batwa girl. The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Reserve can be seen in the background
Credit: Paulina Pacula

I was never satisfied with the idea that I write ‘to have it published’, ’to earn money’ or ’to have my name under the big headline on front page.’ But finally I realized that this was because I always felt my responsibility to the people who give me their story goes far beyond that.

Listening to Lee I understood that I can be far more successful in making impact with my stories by being conscious about this impact. Thinking deeper than making it clickable.

The question about impact is also a question about whether I reinforce stereotypes in my story or challenge them. Can my story make someone vulnerable and how can I prevent that? Will I open people up to reflection and discussion, or rather give them easy answers which do not make them understand others better? What actions do I want to see after the story is published? Who do I want to put pressure on? The government? Public institutions? Business people?

Only by doing that can we fulfill the role of the media as a watchdog. And with this comes another issue – the follow up stories and if there is a need to keep the pressure up. Journalism is not about writing and forgetting! And I see this pattern in the media too often.

As Lee brilliantly pointed out, media plays a significant role in our society as an agent of change. They can facilitate dialogue, debate and discussion at both the national and international level.

Brilliant. I believe in journalism again!

Some may call this approach naïve – I’m fine with that. As Javier Goma Lanzon, the Spanish philosopher pointed out recently, ‘Naivety is a method for traversing the dense cloud created by skepticism, relativism and particularism. It’s a way to deal with our culture dominated by the philosophy of suspicion, destruction, deconstruction, as well as proclamations such as the death of God, the death of Man, the end of History, and other such funereal declarations.’

Yeah, I can be naïve!

Respect for minorities still doubtful under Nepal’s new Constituent Assembly

team_KazNepal’s Constituent Assembly has been seated more than two months after elections, and the country’s minorities are still processing the significance of the results. Kaz Obuka, MRG’s South Asia Programmes Intern, presents the following analysis.

Nepal’s constituent elections last November were a technical success, with an estimated turnout of over 70 per cent, relatively little violence, and observers generally satisfied with the conduct of election officials. After accusations of conspiracy from electoral losers, eight political parties signed an agreement on 24 December 2013 that, if implemented, is expected to kick-start the formation of a new government.

These are significant accomplishments; however it remains unclear whether political stability, a constitution, and increased inclusion of Nepal’s most marginalized minorities will emerge from the process. The infighting over who should call the first session of the Constitutional Assembly bespeaks an interest in power plays rather than the long-term needs of the country. It doesn’t augur well.

Nepal, a small landlocked state wedged between India and China, and ruled by a Hindu monarchy for over 200 years, was thrown into turmoil in 1996 by a Maoist-led insurgency. The insurgency, which killed and displaced many thousands, ended in 2006 after the Maoists agreed to a peace process. Two years later the Maoists swept to power in elections, abolished the monarchy, and declared Nepal a secular state.

The current uncertainty is rooted in conflicts over the anatomy of the state, and the structure of its government. These were the two main issues that prevented Nepal’s first Constitutional Assembly, elected in April 2008, from fulfilling its mandate to create a new constitution – the Assembly was dissolved by the supreme court in May 2012 leaving Nepal with neither a legislature nor a constitution-drafting body.

The then incumbent Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) favoured an executive presidency similar to that of the United States, while the Nepali Congress Party, the main opposition, argued for a Westminster-style parliamentary government. The position of the United Marxist-Leninist Party (UML), the second largest opposition party, was that Nepal should adopt a combination of the two, similar to the French system of governance.

Regarding the former; the Maoists, with the backing of several small political parties representing the Madhesi ethnic group – traditionally discriminated against in Nepal – supported the creation of 10-14 new provinces based on the ethnic identity of the majority of residents. However, opponents of the measure, including the UML and the Nepali Congress, raised concerns that the move would lead to tensions between different castes, and claimed that the Maoists were deliberately sabotaging talks in order to prolong their grip on power.

Structural inequalities are deeply entrenched in Nepal, with economic power closely correlated to caste and ethnicity. High-castes dominate the political leadership, bureaucracy, and military, as well as media and business spheres. Ethnic federalism is seen by proponents as the best way to escape the grip of dominant groups. To activists like Stella Tamang, who sat on the Commission for State Restructuring, resistance to ethnic federalism came across as attempts to preserve the status quo. “It seems they don’t want to have any change”, she told me.

The Maoists openly backed the aspirations of Nepal’s minorities, however their resounding defeat in the polls means that the UML and Nepali Congress, parties that had neither minority inclusion nor ethnic federalism in their electoral mandates, will take the lead in developing Nepal’s political future.

An equally troubling concern, Ms. Tamang said, is the fact that identity-based federalism is a major interest for many of the most marginalised groups. In frustration with a perceived lack of commitment from the Maoists and indifference from other major parties, minority politicians left to form their own. These new parties failed to win a single seat.

Indeed, as Mukesh Khanal points out, many leaders who were vocal about ethnic federalism over the past five or six years did not win the votes of their core constituencies. This is a surprising development; as when, just prior to the dissolution of the last Constituent Assembly, a group of party leaders attempted to push through a privately negotiated constitution – sans ethnic federalism – street protests and uproar in the Assembly laid them low.

In an interview with The Diplomat Prof. Kapil Shrestha, a political scientist at Nepal’s Tribhuvan University, expressed his doubts that identity-based federalism will be a roadblock to constitution drafting. “The politics of identity and ethnicity are no longer as powerful as they once were,” he said. “All parties, even the Maoists, are no longer interested in raking up this issue. Voters are more pre-occupied with socio-economic issues and having a progressive looking democratic constitution.”

He has a point. The Maoists were rewarded with an overwhelming victory in the 2008 elections for leading the resistance against an avaricious elite and incompetent monarchy. It should come as no surprise then, that they have also been blamed for Nepal’s economic decline and political instability.

A peanut vendor interviewed by The Washington Post in Kathmandu summed up this disillusionment. “They led a revolution to fight for the peasants, so I thought they would really uplift our lives,” said Dhital, 24. “But when they came to power, they were just like everyone else. Why should I vote for them again?”

In punishing the Maoists for failing to deliver on their prior electoral mandate, and rejecting identity-based parties Nepalese voters appear to have pushed ethnic issues to the margins of the new political agenda. There are real risks with disappointing aspirations. “Right now, minorities are in a state of shock”, Stella told me. If the parties drag their feet on federalism a backlash is quite likely. Previous failures to satisfy minority aspirations led to a series of agitations in early 2007 that destabilised the country.

Rakesh Karna, an activist with the NGO SUPPORT Nepal, sees dark clouds on the horizon. “The gap between these [Congress and UML] and more progressive parties [on the issue of ethnic federalism and minority inclusion] is huge. It is unlikely they will reach a settlement.”

Dalit woman, Nepal

Dalit woman, Nepal. Credit: CIMMYT

He told me the election results were grave developments because fewer representatives will be in the Assembly from Dalit and other minority groups; donor spending shifted away from directly supporting minority interests in the election process; and the most marginalized ethnicities are under-represented in international agencies. This means that it will be hard going to get their concerns serious attention. “English-speaking educated [minorities], who can fight, will do OK. But those who cannot will lose out.”

Dalits, estimated to comprise around 13-20 per cent of the Nepalese population, made up only around 8 per cent of the last Assembly with 50 members. The new Assembly will have only 40.

Mr. Karna also told me that the emergence of the RPP-N [a royalist, Hindu fundamentalist political party] as the fourth largest political force in Nepal, and their strong showing in the Kathmandu valley – home to many of Nepal’s well-educated elites – is an indicator that the Congress and UML will appeal to Hindu sentiments to consolidate their political power.

“I doubt there will be any respect for minorities,” Mr. Karna said.

Sochi Olympic Games cold comfort to minorities

Darya Alekseeva, MRG’s Russian Federation Programme Coordinator, argues that the government should be investing more of its time and financial resources on long-term programmes to address the challenges faced by the country’s minorities, rather than splashing out huge sums of money on one-off prestige events.

7 February 2014, the day when the Winter Olympic Games started in Sochi, was a day long awaited in the Russian Federation and beyond. However, this day had been clouded long before by a torrent of statements from the international community and local civil society groups, about the country’s human rights record.

Circassian protest London

Circassian people protest in London, UK, against the Sochi Games. Credit: pshegubj

As a Minority Rights Group Europe staff member I would like to seize this opportunity and pose some long-repeated questions: what measures are the government planning to undertake in order to address the marginalization minorities and indigenous peoples are facing in the Russian Federation? What does the state plan to do to safeguard the right to political participation for instance, or the right to receive education in one’s mother tongue? Can the Sochi Olympics change the fact that numerous minority issues remain unresolved?

The Sochi Games have already won the accolade of being the most expensive Olympics in history, with a cost of 50 billion USD. In comparison the budget allocated to the 2014-2020 Programme of Ethno Cultural Development is just 6766.35 million RUR (approximately 19, 324 USD).

The Olympic Games are undoubtedly a very important event, and can be a good investment. However, given the situation for the country’s minorities, is it not more pragmatic to spend less for a one-off event and more for addressing deep-rooted social issues? Ethnic tensions or discriminatory attitudes towards sexual minorities, if left to fester, will be really difficult to resolve solely by way of a change in the law. One just needs to recall events in the Moscow district of Birulevo last year in order to come to the painful conclusion that minority problems in Russia are far from being resolved.

Spending tons of money on the Olympic Games is not in itself a dreadful sin. Many host countries in the past have done the same. But in the case of the Russian Federation, the need to spend money on far more obvious things, including effective mechanisms for minority integration, could support an image of a democratic Government taking care of its citizens, in a way that would make not only Russians themselves, but also the international community, realize that the Government is not spouting hot air, but is actually doing something to address the problems.

Tuvinian people Russia

Tuvinian people, Russia. Credit: onesecbeforethedub

Groups representing sexual and ethnic minorities have been protesting the treatment of their vulnerable communities. They have been vociferous long before Sochi, and no doubt will continue their struggles long after the games have finished. The disturbing thing, however, is that the Russian Federation, proclaiming itself a democratic society which abides by the rule of law and the principles of equality and sovereignty, is continuously slipping in the opposite direction, and seems to openly disregard the public outcry about human rights violations and the curtailing of basic freedoms.

The Russian Government would be well-advised to reconsider its policy towards civil society, and especially towards the country’s most vulnerable groups. A genuinely democratic state should spend its money on programmes and services that benefit all, providing everyone with an adequate standard of living, and access to all of the basic rights and freedoms, without unreasonable limitations and restrictions.

“Freedom”, “Reconciliation”, “Viva!”, “Comrade”, “Robben Island”…

CarlSoderbergh_sq_100pxCarl Soderbergh, MRG’s Director of Policy and Communications, who was in South Africa when Nelson Mandela passed away last week, reflects on the tremendous changes in the country under the inspirational leader, and the challenges the nation continues to face in order to achieve equality for all.

On Friday morning, Guess, one of the participants at a workshop in Pretoria, asked the others to say words or phrases which they associated with Nelson Mandela. An hour or so before, we heard that Mandela had passed away. Many of us joined staff at the hotel where we were staying, as they gathered in front of the television sets scattered around the dining room and lobby.

The workshop was on strategies to increase the inclusion of marginalised groups. It had been arranged by International IDEA, the Stockholm-based democracy and electoral assistance organisation. Participants had come from the various southern African countries. Guess was meant to sum up the preceding day’s activities, and Amanda, our facilitator, had asked him to begin by allowing some time for the participants to absorb the day’s news.

The workshop had ranged widely, covering topics such as UN advocacy, drama, photography and film. As always, informal conversations were as thought-provoking and meaningful as the structured sessions. The seriousness of the situation facing the participants was brought home to me when I sat with a lesbian activist in the garden during one of the coffee breaks, and she described how she had been a victim of so-called “corrective rape” when she had been a teen-ager.  The conversation stayed with me, as I reflected on the participant’s courage as she had gone on to dedicate her life to campaigning for LGBT rights.

IMG-20131206-00011After the workshop ended on Friday afternoon, I decided to walk down to the Union Buildings, seat of the South African parliament. I did not know what I would find there, but I was hoping that I could pay my respects and mark Mandela’s passing in some way. The last time I had visited the Union Buildings had been under very different circumstances in 1986, when the country was under a state of emergency. I was in South Africa on a grant from my law school and working with Navi Pillay at her law firm in Durban. Navi has of course since gone on to become the current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

As I walked, a jumble of memories from that time came back to me. The political geography of apartheid dominated my recollections. Visiting African townships to follow up child detention cases involved negotiating often rude and aggressive white security personnel. One sensed that behind those police barricades, violent police crack-downs were taking place with little outside monitoring and no accountability. And in Cape Town that summer, tens of thousands were left homeless in and around Crossroads squatters’ camp, as the notorious witdoeke gangs attacked residents. The witdoeke were actively supported by the police and got their name from the strips of white cloth worn around their arms and necks.

As I approached the Union Buildings, a man passed me, draped in the South African flag. He said how proud he felt today to be South African. Meanwhile, another memory came back to me. I recalled how every day, while staying with Navi and her family, I experienced the pettiness of segregation. Coming back after work, there were separate bus stops for Africans, Asians and whites. Since my hosts lived in an area designated for those of South Asian descent, I would wait at the Asian bus stop; this attracted suspicious stares from whites at theirs and puzzled glances from the people around me. Invariably, the buses for the whites were more comfortable and came regularly, whereas those designated for African and Asian passengers were shabbier, overcrowded and came less often. For me, as a visiting Swedish national, it was all just a temporary inconvenience. But for those who had to wait daily for their transport home, it was one further aspect of the humiliating system of inequalities put into place by the Group Areas Act and the other building blocks of apartheid.

All this feels so very long ago. It was unimagineable that Mandela would be released less than four years later. At the time apartheid felt like an immoveable weight pressing down on the country. But change, when it came, happened very quickly.

By now, I had walked through a park, climbed several flights of stairs and arrived at the entrance to the Union Buildings. A small crowd had gathered. People were leaving flowers and lighting candles; some children were pasting drawings of Mandela on the walls. Condolence books had been laid open on tables, and a queue had formed. I joined the line, noting the mixture of ages and ethnic backgrounds. The man in front of me was draped in the black, green and yellow African National Congress colours.  Another standing behind me wore a Robben Island souvenir T-shirt.

IMG-20131206-00014The atmosphere was subdued rather than sad. Some children danced in a ring while they waited for their parents to sign the condolence book. Teenagers sat on the steps, chatting, taking photos and texting with their smart phones. I reflected on the fact that this scene, one of black and white South Africans coming together on the steps of the Union Buildings, would have been unthinkable when I had stood on the same spot 27 years ago. And for them to gather in order to pay their respects to the memory of Mandela would have been equally unimaginable.

During these past days, while international media have rightly recorded Mandela’s remarkable achievements, commentators have pointed out that much remains to be done in South Africa, not least in order to address profound economic and social inequalities. And the participants at the workshop I attended would add that the discrimination of marginalised groups, including LGBT persons, remains severe. But the simple fact that black children can dance on the steps of the Parliament shows how far the country has come in a very short space of time, very much due to the messages of forgiveness and reconciliation that Mandela conveyed after he was released from prison and during his presidency.

After having signed the condolence book myself and as I headed out to the airport, the image of the children dancing in a circle stayed with me, supplanting those memories from 1986.

Speaking out against the silence: Violence against minority women

headshotJasmin Qureshi works in MRG’s Communications team. As activists and non-governmental organizations worldwide take part in the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign, she highlights the need to focus on minority and indigenous women, how they are affected by violence, and what should be done to address it.

The issue of violence against women and girls is shrouded in silence. This is a topic I’ve worked on a lot at MRG, as we work with communities affected by gender-based violence, and also as a freelancer on a global campaign to end violence against girls.

I’ve found it very challenging to build a global picture of how violence affects women and girls. We can say how many people are living with poverty in the world, or with diseases like HIV or malaria, but lack of data means we can’t say how many women and girls have experienced violence, in all its forms, around the world. When we talk about minorities and indigenous communities, who are often the most marginalized groups in society, it is virtually impossible.

Dalit women in India.

Dalit women in India.

Whilst the information out there is patchy, what we do know is that violence against women and girls is a global issue, and affects all countries, no matter how wealthy they are. According to UN Women, 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced sexual violence by an intimate or non-intimate partner. However in some national studies, it was discovered that up to 70 per cent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime from an intimate partner. Again, we have no idea how many are from minority or indigenous communities.

MRG’s work – particularly in post-conflict situations – has uncovered information on marginalized women and their experiences of violence, and provides a telling snapshot of the extent of this human rights abuse. A recent MRG report showed that Muslim and Tamil women in the north and east of Sri Lanka, continue to face extrajudicial killings, rape and sexual harassment, even though the three-decade-long armed conflict ended in 2009.

In Somalia, where MRG is currently running a programme to research and raise awareness of the issue, Bantu and other minority women suffer rape, including by police officers, in an environment of almost total impunity for the perpetrators.

Haratine woman in Mauritania. Credit: Shobha Das/MRG.

Haratine woman in Mauritania. Credit: Shobha Das/MRG.

In Mauritania, where slavery still exists, available information indicates that enslaved Haratine women and girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence. MRG is also working in Mauritania on a campaign to end these practices.

MRG’s State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples report in 2011, focused on women, and highlights many more alarming examples of the abuses encountered by minority and indigenous women – and is probably the closest thing we have to an assessment of the global situation.

The problem is, not only do governments avoid talking about violence, but also fear and discrimination within communities stops women from speaking out. Crucially, it also prevents access to justice. I wonder how many women experiencing violence feel they can talk about their experience, or that anybody would listen, and take action? How many governments or justice systems are talking about violence, studying it, finding out how it affects communities – the very people they have a duty to protect?

MRG has worked with Dalit women in India, who are particularly vulnerable to violence, for many years. Our research shows that only 0.7 per cent of gender-based violence cases in India result in a conviction, and around half of cases are stalled in the legal system. But our research also found that pressure from grass-roots community organizations helps progress cases through courts. Similarly, our report on gender-based violence in Sri Lanka celebrates minority survivors of violence as active agents of change.

16 Days campaign logo

16 Days campaign logo

The 16 Days campaign is a great way for all of us, no matter where we are in the world, to help end the silence and pay tribute to initiatives that stop violence against women. This is a global campaign that begins on 25 November, International Day against Violence against Women, and ends on December 10, Human Rights Day.

We need to speak out against violence against women, including against often-forgotten minority and indigenous women. Blog about it, share it on social media, take part in events, talk to your friends about it, and if you’ve got a story to tell, add it to Minority Voices Newsroom, MRG’s interactive news platform.

Social media: the new frontline in the fight against hate speech

Tom greyscale cropTom Clarke, MRG’s Media Intern, talks about the growing impact of online hate speech and the problems facing those who hope to combat it.

Social media is lauded for its ability to disseminate information; fuel social change and protest movement; influence the powerful, and empower the marginalised. It’s fast becoming an essential component of NGO activity for all these reasons; but despite the praise, social media has a dark side.

A recent MRG Council seminar focused on the topic of hate speech. Speakers were invited from Article 19 and Index on Censorship, inter-faith organisation Faith Matters, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, and Gypsy-Traveller support organisation Families and Friends of Travellers.

All participants highlighted the increasing role of social media in propagating hatred. Fiyaz Mughal, Director of Faith Matters, spoke about the shocking level of Islamophobia on Twitter in the UK. Matt Harris, of Index on Censorship called social media a ‘game changer’ in terms of hate speech; reports from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States confirm that the problem is international.

Sticks and stones? The impact of online hate

Online hate has many effects, causing untold suffering to individuals; worsening inter-community relations and increasing marginalisation. Faith Matters and other organisations point to its effect on ‘cumulative extremism’. More worryingly, social media can also incite real physical violence against minorities.

Two Rohingya Muslim girls displaced by the conflict in Burma

Hate speech on social media aggravated tensions during Kenya’s post-election turmoil in 2007, and provoked inter-ethnic riots between Macedonians and Albanians in Skopje in 2011. Online speech activity also as fueled the violence in Burma’s Rakhine state across 2012 and 2013.

In Sri Lanka, vitriolic Islamophobic campaigns on social networks accompanied the recent attacks against the country’s Muslim population. Social media activity was also implicated in the communal violence between Hindus and Muslims in India earlier this year.

The ‘wild web’: applying the law to the digital world

How can we combat online hate? The first approach is legislation. Hate speech laws exist in many countries; Article 20(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights obliges states to prohibit hate speech when it amounts to “incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”.

The internet is no longer the ‘lawless wasteland’ that it once was – individuals can be held accountable. Nevertheless, it’s exceptionally difficult to apply ‘real-world’ legal criteria online. Individuals can conceal their identity; blocked material can easily be hosted elsewhere; and the viral nature of content makes it hard to track and trace. Hate speech laws vary widely across countries, and aren’t uniformly applied; hardly ideal given the transnational nature of the web.

Media self-regulation: part of the problem or part of the solution?

Another option is for internet service providers (ISPs) and social media platforms to police hateful content themselves. Progress here is uneven. ISP’s have the right to block entire domain names, though to do so is lengthy and unwieldy. Facebook and Google signed a recent pact to combat internet hate, which Twitter notably opted out of. Last year, Jewish students in France had to pursue Twitter through the courts in order to block an anti-Semitic group.

Online operators need to work harder. More effective means of enforcement, enabling users to flag hate-speech and lifting/easing anonymity policies would be positive steps forward. There’s a notable absence of industry-wide initiatives focusing on this issue. Even so, media regulation doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Ordinary law provides a backdrop – and for hate speech, ordinary law is a shaky foundation.

Freedom of speech vs protection of minorities

Any prohibition of hate speech – either through law or self-regulation – can also easily run afoul of freedom of expression. Aside from the obvious ethical issues, a UNESCO report emphasises the dangers of pushing ‘unwanted’ opinions underground, making them impossible to counter. Matt Harris voiced fears that censoring content can give undue credibility to extreme individuals and groups.

Who watches the watchmen?

There are even more sinister concerns – legal and censorship powers can easily be abused. As Index on Censorship reports, attempts to tackle social media hate speech in India have been marred by politically motivated arrests and removal of anti-government material.

Such powers can also be used to persecute already marginalised groups. One speaker at the Seminar highlighted the suppression of pro-Rohingya articles in Burma’s press under hate speech laws. Other examples include Roma in the Czech Republic who have been prosecuted under defamation laws.

An alternative solution: counter speech

Almost all the speakers at the Seminar agreed that any prohibitive measures should only be part of a larger response. They, and many others, advocate for an alternative – counter speech.

Counter speech means raising awareness, improving education and building the capacity to speak out against hate speech. NGOs and campaigns like the No Hate Speech Movement and the Stop Racism and Hate Campaign are working towards these ends. Chris Whitwell of Families, Friends and Travellers talked about his own organisation’s efforts to challenge misconceptions and stereotypes about Roma and Gypsies in the media.

Counter speech has its own problems. Marginalised groups often lack capacity or motivation to engage in such activity. Counter speech is also inadequate when it comes to highly volatile situations. Nevertheless, in the long-term this approach is essential to eliminate the culture of permissibility that allows hate speech to thrive online.

Moving forward

How and when should we combat online hate speech? Whose responsibility is it to police this sort of behaviour, and when should we prohibit it outright? Can social media play a positive role? There are no easy answers to these questions – but they are questions that must be asked. As noted by MRG in an earlier blog post, the events of Rwanda in 1994 offer a harrowing example of what can happen when the media becomes an unchecked platform for hate.

Image credit: European Commission DG ECHO

Clumsy, crude, divisive; the media and their portrayal of the marginalized

Emma Eastwood Press Officer_rawEmma Eastwood, MRG’s Communications Officer, comments on the recent media coverage of the removal of a young girl from a Roma community in Greece

It should have been a dream come true for a Communications Officer working in an international human rights organisation; over 900 hits in media outlets from as far and wide as Italy, Australia, Norway, USA and the UAE.

But the spotlight on Minority Rights Group International (MRG), as a result of a name check in an Associated Press wire story, and the subsequent telling of the story of a ‘blond blue-eyed little girl’ found living with a Roma couple, unrelated to her biologically, in a settlement in Greece, has left a sour taste in the mouth of this particular activist.

MRG is deeply concerned for the welfare of the young girl, and all children who face discrimination and poverty worldwide, and urges the Greek authorities to protect the rights of all parties in this case. If the charges of abduction against the Roma couple are upheld, then this will be, according to Europol, one of a growing number of instances of trafficking and abduction of women and girls in Europe.

This particular situation stands out however from numerous cases of abduction, because of its portrayal in the media, and the vast amount of coverage it has received, not just by AP, but by countless other outlets.

MRG’s mandate to secure the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples compels me to comment on the media reaction to these events, and the possible consequences of insensitive reporting for Roma, and the many other dispossessed communities we support around the world.

The mention of MRG in the AP story reads, ‘Greece’s Roma community has for centuries been underprivileged and exposed to poverty and discrimination. According to the London-based Minority Rights Group, some 80 percent of the country’s 300,000 Roma are illiterate. Some resort to criminal activity, engendering resentment from the larger Greek community.’

The story cites a statistic on the elevated levels of illiteracy amongst Roma in Greece, from MRG’s Online Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. This in itself is fair reporting, acceptable contextual information for the piece; and an indicator of the extent to which this historically marginalized community lacks access to even the most basic services, such as education.

But in choosing to follow this statistic with a sentence on criminal activity amongst Roma, the reporter repeats the tired stereotype of linking crime with Roma, and the reader also presumes that this ‘fact’ can be attributed to MRG. Having carried out a rigorous search of our websites and online archive of our publications over the last four decades, authored by experts in the fields of minority and indigenous rights, I can attest that these are certainly not our words.

This is reporting at its most clumsy, crude and divisive, yet the subsequent development by other journalists of the story continues to offend. The imagery is stark; the message delivered by the photographs in this piece from the UK’s Mail on Sunday is clear. ‘Interest’ in this case has already had serious knock-on effects for Roma elsewhere. Two Roma children were taken into care in the Republic of Ireland, purely on the basis that they looked different from their parents. They have since been reunited with their Roma families.

When asked for a comment on the story, Dezideriu Gergely, of the European Roma Rights Centre, said to RTÉ, Ireland’s state broadcaster, that, ‘it was important to remember that not all Roma were dark-skinned and many did have pale skin and blonde hair.’ The fact that a community spokesperson has to explain the blindingly obvious is unacceptable. For some reason however it is permissible when referencing Roma, Gypsies and Travellers.

Louise Doughty, writing in The Guardian, rightly places the racist attitudes of the media within the historical context of ‘the age-old myth that Romanies are in the habit of kidnapping white children,’ and refutes the myth by citing the case of Yenish Gypsy children in Switzerland, who from 1926 to 1972 were ruthlessly hunted down by an Association, partly funded by the Swiss state, and forcibly removed from their parents.

MRG believes it is crucial to challenge the stereotypes that feed intolerance and keep minorities forever on the edges of mainstream society, and we were pleasantly surprised and pleased when  US broadcaster NBC called us last week for advice on use of the words Roma and Gypsy when reporting this particular story.

We should not forget that some media have a blotted record in spreading hate speech and intolerance (for a chilling example of this see Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines’ role in the genocide in Rwanda), and this makes them a natural target for MRG’s work. We are currently running a training programme, funded by the European Union, which will hopefully equip young and novice European journalists with the skills and sensitivities to produce measured and quality news stories on minority and indigenous communities.

Rest assured this particular ‘case study’ will be prominently featured in future training sessions…

On International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, Belize communities demand their rights

chelsea-purvisChelsea Purvis, a lawyer assisting MRG’s Legal Cases Team, reports on land rights advocacy by Maya and Garifuna communities.

Today is the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, an annual celebration to promote and protect the rights of indigenous peoples worldwide.  The theme of this year’s celebration is ‘Indigenous peoples building alliances: Honouring treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements’.  This theme has made me reflect on the many dedicated Maya and Garifuna activists I met when I travelled to Belize this spring.  In Belize, the government has utterly failed to honour its commitments to indigenous communities.  But even as oil exploration begins on their forested ancestral lands, indigenous communities are not giving up.

Maya and Garifuna communities of Toledo, Belize’s southern-most district, rely on the land and its natural resources to preserve their unique cultures and way of life.  During my visit I had the opportunity to visit a number of Mopan and Q’eqchi’ Maya villages. Here communities practice traditional subsistence agriculture known as milpa, a form of shifting cultivation, and use forest resources for medicine, building materials, and items of cultural significance.  I also spoke to Garifuna people – an Afro-indigenous community – in the coastal village of Barranco.  Garifuna are expert fisherpeople and small-scale farmers.  Their language, dance and music have been recognized by UNESCO as masterpieces of oral and intangible heritage.

Traditional Maya dance Credit: Chelsea Purvis

Traditional Maya dance
Credit: Chelsea Purvis

For many years, these communities have been advocating for the government of Belize to respect and protect their human rights.  In the 1990s the government granted massive logging concessions in Toledo to foreign companies.  And in 1994 the government converted nearly 42,000 acres of Maya and Garifuna traditional land into government land, the Sarstoon-Temash National Park.

In response, indigenous communities worked to come to an agreement with the government to protect their lands.  In 2000 the government signed the Ten Points of Agreement with the Maya people of southern Belize, in which the government ‘recognizes that the Maya People have rights to lands and resources in southern Belize based on their long-standing use and occupancy.’

Despite this step, in 2001 the government then opened Toledo – including Sarstoon National Park – to oil exploration by US Capital Energy Belize Ltd, a wholly owned Belizean subsidiary of American company US Capital Energy Inc.  It did so without consulting or seeking the free, prior and informed consent of the Maya and Garifuna communities that have traditionally used and occupied this land.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) found this to be a clear violation of international law.  The IACHR in 2004 issued a report recognizing Maya people’s collective rights to land traditionally used and occupied in Toledo.  It recommended that the government delimit, demarcate and title Maya ancestral land.  The government failed to implement the IACHR’s decision, however.  So the Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA) and Toledo Alcaldes Association (TAA), on behalf of Toledo’s Maya communities, brought domestic actions challenging government logging and oil concessions.  The Supreme Court of Belize in 2007 and 2010 ordered the government to recognize Maya land rights, demarcate and title their land, and cease and abstain from interfering with their right to property.

Credit: Chelsea Purvis

Temash River
Credit: Chelsea Purvis

The government of Belize simply ignored these binding rulings.  In flagrant violation of the Supreme Court’s orders, it permitted US Capital to begin oil exploration on Maya and Garifuna land – again, without consulting indigenous communities.

Furthermore, the government recently terminated its co-management agreement with the Sarstoon-Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM) to perform day-to-day management of the park Sarstoon-Temash National Park.  SATIIM‘s Maya and Garifuna rangers have worked for years to protect the park from poaching and illegal logging.

The government of Belize appealed the 2010 ruling.  Last month Belize’s Court of Appeal finally released its decision.  I was glad to hear that the Court affirmed Maya property rights over Toledo lands.  But the Court also struck out court orders requiring that the government take specific action to protect Maya land rights.  This is deeply concerning because the government urgently needs to protect Maya lands.  SATIIM says that US Capital has already built a road through the Sarstoon-Temash National Park and has begun constructing its first oil platform in the wetlands.

I asked Maya and Garifuna representatives in Belize about their next steps.  The MLA and TAA, having consulted with over 300 leaders from Maya communities, have decided to appeal the Court of Appeal decision to the Caribbean Court of Justice (see the MLA TAA press release).  They have also filed a new Supreme Court case against the government.

SATIIM, on behalf of the five villages bordering the park, has also filed a case against the government and has requested a court order to stop US Capital from drilling in the Sarstoon-Temash National Park (see the SATIIM press release).

On this International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, I celebrate the perseverance and strength of indigenous communities in Belize.  I also hope that the government of Belize takes seriously the call of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, who today urged states to respect their agreements with indigenous communities.


European Court of Human Rights upholds the ban on Hungarian Guard

Tanja  headshot

Tanja Venisnik, a lawyer assisting MRG’s Legal Cases team, delves more deeply into the background, and possible consequences, of a recent judgment by Europe’s highest court.

Taking a position on banning extremist political parties and groups that incite hatred, advocate violence and/or engage in hate crimes is no straightforward task. The recent rise in political extremism across the world, but particularly in Europe, has put a question mark over the concept of unfettered freedom of association.

Extremist political parties and other groups have been resorting not only to hate speech but also to violence and hate crimes. Even mainstream political parties tend to rely on racist discourse in order to avoid losing votes to the extreme right. These dehumanising statements and violent attacks mostly target minority communities, and if unaddressed, may result in persecution of minorities on a larger scale. However, simply banning political parties, even the most extremist ones, can encroach on other basic rights and freedoms, such as the freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and, in some cases, freedom of religion.

The guidelines and recommendations of various regional and international bodies monitoring human rights, including the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, have always erred on the side of caution in this respect, stating that prohibition or dissolution of political parties should only be envisaged in extreme cases. The ban as a measure of last resort must be necessary in a democratic society and there must be evidence that a party is engaged in activities threatening democracy and fundamental freedoms. Furthermore, any restrictive measures taken against a political party on the basis of the behaviour of its members should be supported by concrete evidence that he or she acted with the support of the party in question or that such behaviour was the result of the party’s programme or political aims.

Last week, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) delivered a long-awaited judgement in the case of Vona v. Hungary, in which it dealt with the issue of banning an association and a movement, rather than a political party. The ECtHR held that Hungary had not violated the freedom of association by banning the Hungarian Guard Association and the Hungarian Guard Movement.

Credit: Leigh Phillips

Credit: Leigh Phillips

The former was founded in 2007 by the right-wing political party Jobbik. Later that same year, the Hungarian Guard Association created the Hungarian Guard Movement, whose president was Jobbik’s leader Gábor Vona. The Movement defined its mission as “defending a physically, spiritually and intellectually defenceless Hungary” against “Gypsy crime”. The members of the Movement conducted marches in Roma neighbourhoods, intimidating the inhabitants with racist chants and military attire, reminiscent of Nazi uniforms.

According to the ECtHR, Hungary was entitled to take preventive measures to protect democracy against associations if a sufficiently imminent prejudice to the rights of others undermined the fundamental values upon which a democratic society rested and functioned. The ECtHR further held that paramilitary marches organised by the Movement had gone beyond the mere expression of a disturbing or offensive idea, which is protected under the Convention, given the physical presence of a threatening group of organised activists. Therefore, the only way to effectively eliminate the threat posed by the Hungarian Guard Movement was to remove the organisational backup provided by the Hungarian Guard Association.

Important points, stemming from the ECtHR’s decision are that states do not have to wait until a political movement resorts to violence before intervening, and that while spreading anti-democratic ideas is not enough in itself for banning an association, the Movement’s coordinated and planned actions together with its actual influence on political life in Hungary constituted sufficient and relevant reasons for such a measure. The ECTHR relied on the notion of intimidated “captive audience,” as the people living in the communities targeted by the Movement could not escape the extreme and exclusionary views held against them.

However, after being banned, the Hungarian Guard simply reorganised under a different name without applying for formal registration. The New Hungarian Guard continues the work of the banned movement, still spreading hostile propaganda and intimidation campaigns against the Roma.

This only goes to show that banning similar movements might prove to be fruitless or, in some cases, even counter-productive, as there might be a risk of further radicalisation and an increase in violence. Nevertheless, states have a positive obligation to act against dissemination of racism and intolerance, whereas democratic institutions should send strong messages that inciting racial hatred and engaging in violence against minorities is simply not acceptable in a democratic society.

In his concurring opinion to the Vona decision, judge Pinto de Albuquerque noted that, according to international treaties, states have positive obligations to dissolve every group, organisation, association or party that promotes racism or ethnic intolerance. He further asserted that this obligation must be acknowledged as customary international law, binding on all states. This position is problematic, however, because there is no evidence of uniform state practice regarding the issue of banning political parties, let alone other associations or movements. In this respect, legal approaches vary considerably from one state to another, meaning that it is still too early to talk about the emergence of a customary norm.

Finally, it should be kept in mind that limitations and prohibitions of political activities are often used by states to restrict minorities from promoting their culture and identity or from expressing critical views on a vast array of issues. Therefore, the issue should always be examined in light of the question whether the restrictions could actually be used against those they are meaning to protect in the first place, and whether in the future they could pose a danger to minority rights in general.

A letter from Egypt: ‘Nothing is more uncertain than tomorrow’

Sarah El Ashmawy, MRG’s Egypt Programme Coordinator, writes a letter from Cairo to her colleagues, expressing her thoughts on Egypt’s recent protests and political turmoil.

Dear all,

For those who have met me, my passion about my country is sincere, and something that I am more than proud to let show. For those who have not met me yet and only heard of the Egypt Programme, MRG’s work has directly contributed to my sense of belonging to the revolutionary Egypt which wants to see a new face for the thousands-year-old nation.

Protests in Tahrir Square, Egypt

Demonstrators pack Tahrir Square, Cairo, in January 2012, to mark the anniversary of the start of the protests in 2011. Credit: MRG/Mark Lattimer

On the eve of the 30th of June, with all the hopes and dreams that each one is carrying in his heart before going to sleep tonight, I found myself with an urge to write to my colleagues, so I just sat with my laptop to type this letter. I would like to share a bit with people who I believe share passion for justice and equality.

Two years after the revolution and a year after the first democratic elections, I can sincerely say that revolution is draining and democracy is scary. To dive into Egypt’s problems and tackle them will, most of the time, make you feel like structural problems are infernal and that only the end of days will bring them to a stop on this land. So much resistance for change, so much fear of the unknown and a sad nostalgia for the prisoner we knew well. Nothing is more uncertain than tomorrow, and this had become increasingly difficult to turn into the realization that so much is possible because so little is certain.

There is nothing beautiful about revolution, but everything is liberating. At some moments, some golden moments that only present themselves at a glance, you will find yourself making your own internal revolution. Reaching for new people, leaving old thoughts, opening your eyes for new models and potential. These golden moments constitute the light inside the scared creature and you suddenly think that maybe you can defeat this structure by your actions. The bravery is addictive, and you cannot bear the idea of the coward. Eventually, something like tomorrow happens out of people’s dreams that the tomorrow we want for our children has to be possible, or else, why were we born?

Protesters in Tahrir Square

Protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo, in January 2012. Credit: MRG/Mark Lattimer.

We know that life will go on in the world, so why should it stop for us. But history is only complete if small insignificant voices do tell the story of what is happening somewhere and sometime.

This is my small contribution to you, for you to realize that while your daily life is happening wherever you are, something exceptional in the history of a nation is happening too. At the very same time. And that I thought you deserved to have an insight, a peek into the mess.