Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman is pushing for new hate speech laws. By Phil Quin



IMG. RICHARD MYBURGH/SUPPLIED


It is an irony of some magnitude that the leading proponent of new hate speech laws in the New Zealand Parliament, Golriz Ghahraman, worked as an intern at the International Court Tribunal of Rwanda (ICTR), defending Simon Bikindi who was convicted for inciting genocide against Tutsi

It is doubly so when you take into account that the defence arguments almost entirely rested on his right to freedom of speech.

While I accept even the most heinous criminals are entitled to a robust defence – and that includes interns, I guess –  at the very least I'd be curious to know if Ghahraman accepts the ICTR's ultimate judgment, or harbours any regrets about the role she chose to play defending Bikindi, a folk singer who used his celebrity to encourage the extermination of Rwanda's Tutsi minority, one million of whom were killed over 100 days of slaughter.

Her silence to date on this, as well as on the infamous grinning selfie she took with Bikindi, speaks volumes. After the revelation of her involvement, and publication of the alarming photo, a young genocide survivors' group in Rwanda sought clarification over her role and offered to host the MP on a fact-finding tour of the country. She declined their invitation and denied them a reply to any of their questions – beyond a single, dismissive tweet. 

Ghahraman with Simon Bikindi, who was convicted for inciting genocide in Rwanda.


This attitude is not new to Rwandans. In fact, free-speech arguments emanating from the West have a long and inglorious history there. Amnesty International, for example, was up in arms over the arrest of hate radio propagandists some years before the 1994 genocide but remained silent on the central role they played in instigating the killings. The US government resisted a proposal to jam the signal of these same radio stations on First Amendment grounds, as if the US Constitution applies to East Africa.

To this day, human rights  lobbyists based in Western capitals continue to badger the government of Rwanda over laws restricting the propagation of ethnic division and prohibiting the formation of political parties along ethnic lines. It's staggering to me that Western actors feel entitled to insert themselves in this debate at all in light of our collective failure in 1994 when Rwanda's Tutsis were abandoned by the international community, as lambs to the slaughter. 

 

One wonders how these pale-faced know-it-alls would justify their sanctimony to Jeanette Mukabyagaju, the survivor whom I met in the village of Rwimikoni last week. Jeanette's parents were shot dead on the second day of the killings – April 8, 1994 – and four of her six siblings were cut down in even more brutal fashion during the ensuing days. Jeanette herself only survived after hiding in a locked toilet cubicle for three weeks as militias hunted down every last living Tutsi. As it happens, I didn't ask for her view on whether the right to incite ethnic cleansing should be restored in Rwanda to placate the human rights lobby – to do so would have been insulting and absurd.

As for how New Zealand adapts its hate speech laws in the wake of Christchurch, it strikes me the distinction between the merely vile and the outright dangerous remains important.

As galling as it is, idiots like Israel Folau deserve the protection of the law. That doesn't mean Folau shouldn't face dire consequences from Australian Rugby – they are right to sack him – but he doesn't need to land in prison. Equally, if you object to one religion or another (I'm utterly ecumenical on his point), you should be able to say so.

Jeanette Mukabyagaju, a survivor of the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.


I'm inclined to the view that the best antidote to bad speech is good speech. However, when this veers into incitement – when it reaches a certain fever pitch – the law should step in. While tricky, this isn't an impossible line to draw. I'm wary of efforts to expand definitions in such a way as to grant the state greater powers to police language unless it represents an identifiable threat to public safety.

The better approach is embodied by our prime minister, which is to overwhelm bigotry with a message of tolerance; hate, with love. This is where the individual citizen can lead the way in our own domain. Push back against the racist uncle. Don't stand for homophobic slurs. Don't be bamboozled by the "anti-PC" crowd who see something sinister in using language in kinder, more respectful ways. We are, after all, our own best censors.

When it comes to clamping down on social media platforms, I'm more amenable. Nobody endowed Facebook and Google with an immutable right to create digital cesspools that we are forced to wade through in perpetuity so they can better target ads at us. Self-regulation has demonstrably failed.

It's too early to tell whether the kind of answer proposed in the UK's online harm white paper represents a viable solution or clumsy overreach, but it's a debate worth having, and one New Zealand should emulate.

To do so constructively, however, we need leaders both inside and outside Parliament to front the discussion with calmness and credibility. This we do not have at present.

Phil Quin taking part in a panel on Media Responsibility in an Age of Fake News, Hate Speech and Denial, on April 9,  as part of the 25th commemoration of the Genocide Against the Tutsi.