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Exercise free speech, not hate speech: Aung Myo Min

DVB’s Aye Nai spoke with rights activist Aung Myo Min, the director of Equality Myanmar and co-founder of the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma, about “free speech” and “hate speech”, and how to prevent the spread of hatred by promoting peaceful understanding among different races and religions.  

As people begin to claim newfound freedoms of expression in Burma, Aung Myo Min urges caution and sensitivity in both the media and public speech. With so many readily available forms of expression, such as social media and a flood of new publications, he argues that the line between “free speech” and “hate speech” can be easily blurred, and individuals must try to act responsibly and respectfully towards others.


Q: Could you please explain what constitutes hate speech?

A:  Hate speech is any expression that aims to hurt, terrorise, spread hatred or create misunderstanding among a group of people or a group of specific nationalities.

“Hate speech” can sometimes look like “free speech”. It could be verbal abuse by individuals. It could be published in news media. Some people speak hatred in public. And now people can use websites, new media and social networks.

Q: How are human rights and hate speech related?

A: Firstly, everybody has the right to freedom of speech, granted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 19. It is our right. But using freedom of speech to create misunderstanding, hatred, or to cause violence between individuals or against a group of people is not freedom of speech. We have freedom of speech, but there are limitations – not to cause hatred between one another.

Chapter eight of our Constitution grants freedom of speech. But it also prohibits this freedom if what we say is prejudicial towards other races or faiths. It is like this in other countries, as well. Hate speech can lead to physical harm or damage to people’s lives, and in some countries it is even a criminal act.

Q: What is the aim of hate speech? 

A: There can be many motivations. In some cases, in election campaigns, while promoting one’s own party, some people discriminate or look down on other groups of people or other ethnic groups.

Another reason is to agitate two ethnic groups or groups of people, to create war or violence. This is also included in “hate speech”. In the past in Africa, there has been hate speech intended to create problems between ethnic groups, to incite hatred or to kill each other. There were also some examples of agitation not only between the different ethnic groups but also between different faiths or religions. It depends on who is speaking. Hate speech also sometimes occurs against minorities by the majority people.

Q: Is there hate speech in Burma?

A: Yes. Especially between religious or ethnic groups; not only do they create misunderstanding, but some even suggest that others should not exist or should be killed. Sometimes in religious speeches, hatred is incited against other religions. These are all examples of hate speech.

Q: Who is mainly responsible for preventing hate speech?

A: The government is responsible, because the Constitution allows freedom of speech but prohibits hate speech. We can simply make arrests for breaking the rules laid out by our Constitution. Furthermore, in some countries, there are criminal laws against hate speech. Such laws make it easier to control. The government is responsible for approving and implementing these laws.

The other way to tackle hatred is to establish understanding among different people. The government should pay special attention to these differences. Creating understanding is a peaceful ideology. So to topple hatred there should be better education on peaceful ideology, so that we can prevent those who want to incite hate. Then people would not be so easily agitated, and can see each other as human beings. The government, as well as each individual, is responsible for this.

Q: What is the role of civil society in combating hate speech?

A: We need to be strong, as individuals. Sometimes we become confused by unconfirmed information. Sometimes we are not thinking clearly and we think the hate speech is truth. Everybody needs to be ethical. At this point in history, there shouldn’t be hatred. People should live peacefully. People don’t want war, in Burma or anywhere else in the world. Even if war were eliminated, we still need to be careful about hatred between ethnic and religious groups. We need to be understanding and ethical. Civil society organisations can do a lot to improve this. Good community organising is key.

Q: What can religious institutions do to tackle hate speech?

A: Religious leaders need to help fellow members to understand the teachings of their own religion. No religion teaches people to kill each other or abuse other people. In any religion — such as Buddhism, Christianity, Islam or Hindi — they teach people to be ethical and help those in need. Religious leaders can do a lot more to help people see each other as human beings. A religious leader can lead the people the wrong way or the right way. It is important for religious leaders to teach the people the right way.



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