Fri 30 Oct 2020

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“Revolutionary courts” restrict freedom of speech in Syrian virtual space

Social media sites (expressive image)

Social media sites (expressive image)

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Enab Baladi – Saleh Malas 

“If all human beings had one similar opinion, and only one of them had a different opinion, silencing that one person is no different from him silencing all human beings had he the power to do so.”

This saying by the British philosopher John Stuart Mill calls for the right to express one’s opinion, provided not to cause moral or material “harm” to others. Similarly, in its beginnings in 2011, the Syrian revolution called for the same principle; nonetheless, today’s Syrian social networking sites are far from reaching this point of respecting freedom of speech.

The freedom of expression has lost its way in Syrians’ virtual world. The Syrians found themselves victims of hate speech, incitement, libel and slander, whenever one of them wanted to express an opinion that does not align with other Syrians’ views or does not serve their orientation.

During recent weeks, some incitement campaigns spread on social media, targeting one of the Syrian human rights centers affiliated to the opposition. The center was accused of betrayal for including in its report the arrest of a Syrian journalist by the Syrian regime despite being a loyalist to the regime.

The center included this arrest case in its report to emphasize that intimidation acts by the regime’s forces include and targets all media workers in its areas of control, even those close to the regime’s government and institutions, who carry their work by the permission, consent, and supervision of the regime’s government and its security apparatus.

On the other hand, Syrian activists denounced the center’s use of this case. They criticized the description of Wissam al-Tair as a “journalist,” as he participated in military actions and documented his participation in pictures and recorded videos to gloat at the besieged civilians by the Syrian regime.

Later, campaigns spread on social networking sites that went beyond criticism and rejection to accusations against the human rights center of betrayal and treachery.

In another similar incident, not long after the first one, criticism by hundreds of “Facebook” users against the “Syrian Civil Defense” group operating in opposition-held areas turned into a direct attack accusing the entity and its members of betrayal.

This attack came after the “Syrian Civil Defense” expressed its readiness to offer help in extinguishing the fires that have taken place in the mountains of some areas controlled by the Syrian regime to the west of Syria.

It is worth noting that this article is not intended to discuss the public’s right to express their opinions, criticize, correct errors, or encourage positive interaction and evaluation of such entities’ performance.

Instead, the article presents views by specialists to analyze the reasons for online hate speech promoting ready-made charges against Syrian civil organizations to distort its staff members’ image.

According to Yahya Fares, program manager of the “Hate Speech Observatory in Syrian Media” of the “Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM),” some Syrians rely on hate speech to face criticism and to express opinions that do not necessarily coincide with other Syrians’ views.

Fares added that the armed conflict in any country also increases the suppression of freedom of opinion between individuals without the interference of the authority.

“It is difficult to set a comprehensive definition for the hate speech concept, making it problematic and controversial,” according to Fares.

Fares added, the internationally agreed definition of hate speech includes any kind of written, visual, or video content that “carries some kind of attack on a group of individuals because they express an opinion that contradicts what another group believes.”

According to Fares, the person who adopts hate speech uses conflicting views to justify accusations of betrayal, incitement or swearing, and defamation.

According to a report by the Amnesty International Organization, the freedom of opinion and expression applies to ideas of any kind, including those that may be considered very offensive.

While international law protects freedom of expression, there are cases in which such freedom may be legitimately restricted under the same law, such as the cases that promote violating others’ rights, or advocacy of hatred, discrimination, or violence, as per the report.

Hate speech… A meeting point between reality and social networking sites

The Syrian social researcher at the “Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies,” Talal Mustafa, said to Enab Baladi that the Syrian regime during his rule of Syria, especially in the last nine years, has produced a series of vibrations on the level of social and cultural structures within the Syrian society.

This led to ruptures between the different social groups in Syria, according to Mustafa.

Mustafa added that al-Assad’s Syrian regime (the father and the son) intended to destroy all social institutions and domesticate them, causing them to lose healthy upbringing methods.

These weak social institutions became unable to keep pace with the psychological and social requirements of a generation that has been abused by its cultural, political, ideological, and religious references for 50 years.

According to Mustafa, this social breakdown “made Syrian society incapable of redefining itself within the contemporary transformation of Syrians’ collective identity through a violent and insecure social virtual space.”

Hence, the culture of hatred emerged in all Syrian circles, especially in the Syrian cultural and political spheres, which was transferred later to virtual space.

Mustafa said the armed conflict in Syria has contributed to the emergence of a new culture of aggression against the values of coexistence, tolerance, and diversity.

He added that the war in Syria produced a hate speech culture charged politically and ideologically among the Syrians.

According to Mustafa, this culture of hatred between the Syrians from a sociological perspective is an abnormal social form and deviant behavior in terms of values, as it is based on fear of the other.

He added, the culture that some Syrians have acquired in their life, which is a product of their totalitarian regime, appears through social media sites.

Today, the Syrian regime invests in this cultural product as it did before to export hatred to all categories of Syrian society, based on conflicting cultural identities adopting hatred in the different Syrian geographical dimensions of various cultural trends and political influence, according to Mustafa.

This nurtured culture of hate encourages a climate of prejudices that boosts hate crimes on social networking sites.

A pathological condition incurable by “cultural openness”

Mustafa said to Enab Baladi that social media sites, especially “Facebook,” have posts published by Syrians inciting behavioral patterns of open hatred and exclusionary hostility against others.

These posts have reached the level of open calls for genocidal crimes in some “Facebook” groups.

What is beyond normal, according to Mustafa, is to have this culture of hatred among some Syrian opposition members, especially those who come across others’ experiences in the political and social scene outside Syria, namely in democratic European societies.

Mustafa questioned in disapproval, “are not nine years of stay outside Syria and living in democratic societies enough to make adjustments in the culture of dealing with the other who is politically and culturally different?

For some Syrians through social media sites, in Mustafa’s opinion, the reason for hate speech is ” the stereotypical ideas one carries about others.”

Such ideas are irrational as they are based on prejudices, hasty judgments, or excessive generalization without searching for real information before making opinions in the subjects most discussed by Syrians on social networking sites.

According to Mustafa, this irrational behavior is due to stereotypical thinking and intransigence on opinions.

Mustafa referred to the different aspects of hate speech. First, he talked about the emotional aspect, which comes in the form of hatred feelings by an individual whose mind is charged with hostility and anti-human feelings that move from indifference towards ground enmity.

He also talked about the behavioral aspect of social distance laid by a person performing hate speech with others.

“Cultural intolerance is a deconstructive factor in social interaction,” Mustafa said. It distorts relationships among individuals within a single community, blocking everything new, culturally, and cognitively every year, isolating and alienating individuals from other groups in their communities.

Mustafa described online hate speech as a pathological condition that leads to violence toward the other; that is why “many studies regard it as a political, social disease,” according to Mustafa’s opinion.

Factors encouraged a culture of hate

Mustafa mentioned to Enab Baladi that there are many factors behind the emergence of a culture of hatred in some Syrians’ posts and comments on “Facebook.” Some of these factors are obvious, while others remain hidden.

For example, many claim absolute knowledge of all life issues and that they are the only ones who possess it, which leads them to eliminate all those who disagree with them.

In Mustafa’s opinion, the second factor is the absence of citizenship culture in daily life practices on the ground.

This is reflected in people’s behavior all over social media sites, which lead to their recidivism to sub-identities, ideological, national, political, and even sectarian ones by defending the beliefs of these sub-identities, regardless of their shared Syrian identity.

Besides, subordination to all that is culturally inherited and traditional in attitudes and behavioral patterns has led to resisting change in some Syrians’ cultural mentality, even if some of them live in European countries, according to Mustafa.

According to Mustafa, there is another reason that plays an important role in the spread of online posts and comments loaded with hostile content of refusing the other and depicting it as a conspirator on the person’s ideology, nationalism, political party, and even religious sect.

Mustafa said a person who practices hate speech does not consider the other as a partner or a Syrian citizen.

The existence of cultural and political groups, especially in Syrian institutions and workplaces, is contributing to generating violence against everyone outside these groups, not only in reality but also in social networking sites, according to Mustafa.

He added this contributed to “a culture of exclusion and neglect toward every discourse and production that is not affiliated to a specific group or at least to gain its approval.”

Hate speech… A cybercrime exploited by Syrian legislation

In recent years, social networking sites have become platforms that bring together all social groups and are considered alternative media outlets to traditional television.

Governments’ interest worldwide increased to enact laws and legislations to define cybercrime to limit hate speech at social media sites.

However, Mustafa mentioned that the “cybercrime” law of 2012 is an entry for restricting personal liberty more than protecting individuals from hate speech.

The “cybercrime” law protects the authority from individuals’ criticism because the law allows the regime’s authority to detain individuals for criticizing the government.

As for cases involving incitement to violence among individuals themselves, according to Mustafa, there are questions about whether the authority in Syria is serious in prosecuting those who make abusive comments against an ordinary person who does not belong to the regime’s authority.

He added part of the problem is that Syrian laws of cybercrime are designed for a certain period. According to Mustafa, people are continually switching to new virtual sites, transferring and publishing hostile ideas to the public, in a way outside the law’s criminalization of them.

When someone adopts hate speech against a group of individuals, whether civilians, politicians, elites, or public figures, that person can justify the harassment or social or material crises that might occur with the targeted group due to incitement against them.

According to journalist Yahya Fares, this enables unjust judgments that are not based on research, which contributes to humiliating other people’s dignity.

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