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When Words Were Warrants

World Policy Journal begins each issue with the Big Question, where we ask a panel of experts to provide insight into the cover theme. The question for the spring 2017 Fascism Rising issue is: What role does the media play in driving xenophobia? Below, Jean-Yves Camus argues that abusive rhetoric in the media, both in the past and today, can fuel resentment toward minority groups.

By Jean-Yves Camus

After World War II, Europe was still reeling from the catastrophic consequences of the Holocaust. Across the continent, countries crafted strict legislation that made it a criminal offense to incite racial hatred, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia. Before World War II in France, vitriolic attacks on people of color and Jews were common—even on the pages of respected newspapers. After the war, and with the passing of hate speech laws, the press has handled issues of race and xenophobia with comparative restraint and caution.

The 1972 French law on racial libel drew a line between what is acceptable—political satire and mockery of religion—and what is not: hate speech intended to “provoke discrimination, hate, or violence towards a person or a group of people” due to membership or lack of membership of a certain ethnic group, nation, race, or religion. The law was amended in 1990 to include gender, sexual orientation or identity, and disability.

Nonetheless, bigotry and prejudice still exist in the mainstream media, albeit with more implicit language that doesn’t fall afoul of the law. 

On the one hand, there is the growing misrepresentation of those with a Muslim cultural or religious background. Terrorist attacks by radical Islamists on secular values do not justify the vilification of Islam as a religion or of Muslims as a group. Tabloids, and sometimes even more “serious” media outlets, continue to report on refugees escaping violence and poverty in a way that fuels resentment, anger, and discrimination. The only political beneficiaries of such reporting are the nationalist-populist parties.

On the other hand, some media also employ abusive rhetoric when reporting on Israel. Legitimate criticism of a nation-state is used as a guise for anti-Jewish prejudice. This is nothing but old-fashioned anti-Jewish innuendo, and is part of a broader wave of anti-Semitism that has been sweeping across Western Europe since the Second Intifada. Reporting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires care, so that the audience understands the differences between being Israeli, Jewish, and a Zionist. 

Our American friends often criticize Europe for enacting legislation against hate speech that they see as an infringement on freedom of speech. But one must remember that when it comes to ethnicity, race, and religion, words were warrants for genocide. That history of hatred was not so long ago.

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Jean-Yves Camus is a political scientist. He is director of the Obsevatoire des radicalites politiques (ORAP) and a research fellow at the Institut de relations internationales et strategiques (IRIS), both in Paris. His last book, Far-Right Politics in Europe (with Nicolas Lebourg), was published by Harvard University Press in March 2017.

[Photo courtesy of Yad Vashem]

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