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Writers against hate speech

Ukraine: hybrid war, the war of words

ავტორის გვერდი Ostav Slyvynsky 1970-08-22 9983
The newly rejuvenated PEN Georgian Center is launching a series of discussions on hate speech and the role of The Writer in working against discrimination of vulnerable groups and minorities. The project aims at bringing writers from the Eastern Partnership countries (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova) together and raise awareness of hate speech campaigns in all 6 countries to discuss how they are similar or different, and what to do about them.
Is war possible without hate? Rather no. Is hate possible without speech? Yes, sometimes. Is war possible without hate speech? Definitely not.
War in Ukraine – a Russian-Ukrainian military conflict in Eastern Ukraine caused by Russian aggression – lasts since 2014. The distinctive feature of this war is that it is happening not only on a battlefield with the use of rocket launchers and mortar shells but – to the same extent – on TV screens, in the internet, on the radio.
Russian-Ukrainian conflict will probably become a classical example of hybrid war – a combination of traditional military actions, terrorist attacks and informational aggression such as fakes, hacking, and massive propaganda campaigns. Military and informational elements of hybrid war are closely interrelated: propaganda and fakes in the mass media and social networks not only create an “ideological platform” for war, like in the military conflicts of the past. Nowadays they create the distorted image of the world where fake facts are indistinguishable from the real ones, and even the real facts are put in completely wrong contexts. Such image of the world is created in order to present the military aggression as something absolutely inevitable.
But one of the main features of hybrid war is the infiltration of hate speech into the public use.
Hate speech in the public discourse is a super-power weapon. Usually restricted, it produces a striking effect when suddenly becomes “officially allowed”, somehow legitimized by use in the messages of state news agencies, high-rated media, in the parliament and other political and public bodies. Legitimization of hate speech usually shows the raise of authoritarian tendencies in the state; it is one of the instruments of strengthening of authoritarian power: aggressive society is always a manipulated society.
Hate speech within Russian-Ukrainian relations (earlier quite common in so called “grey zones”, i.e. social networks, internet forums and marginal publications) massively impinged into official use in 2013-2014 during Maidan protests in Kyiv and proliferated after Russian annexation of Crimea and beginning of Ukrainian-Russian war.
Russian state-controlled media almost immediately violated any limits of political correctness. Hate speech appeared in their messages in its classical form: as a misuse of political and historical terms and an application of emotionally loaded vocabulary in order to offend and brutalize the Other. For example, the term “fascists” is still used by Russian propaganda to designate the civil protesters on Maidan in 2013-2014; “chasteners” refers to the Ukrainian armed forces and the members of Ukrainian voluntary battalions fighting in Eastern Ukraine; “Kiev junta” describes democratically elected president Poroshenko and his cabinet, etc.
The situation in Ukrainian public sphere and mass media isn’t much better, though the nature of Ukrainian political hate speech is rather reactive than proactive. Thus, the extremely ambivalent term “terrorists” can be considered as the mirror image of the above mentioned “chasteners”: the term is used to designate pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine and the regular Russian troops fighting there. However, ‘terrorism’ is a strict legal term and such activity should be legally proved, otherwise the term acquires the features of hate speech. Nevertheless, the formulation “anti-terroristic operation” was officially used until recently to denote Ukrainian military campaign in the eastern regions of the state. This fact shows the strong tendency of Ukrainian officials to misuse and overuse political and criminal terms with strong emotional load in order to keep society ‘necessarily toned’: this is the accurate mirroring of Russian tactics with its “fascists” and “junta”.
The offensive term “vatnik” which literally means ‘quilted jacket’ but metaphorically refers to a person with pro-Russian aspirations, should have stayed in the “grey zone” but unfortunately occurs in the messages of popular Ukrainian mass media and public persons. Even ‘softened’ with formulations like “so called” such terms are unacceptable, especially in the public sphere.
It is noteworthy that the persons who dare to qualify such vocabulary as hate speech and criticize its public use – like experienced Ukrainian journalist Nastya Stanko in 2015 – immediately become the targets of hate speech themselves, while their criticism is taken as the declaration of loyalty to the enemy. According to the common social attitude (which in turn is a consequence of the above-mentioned official legitimization of hate speech) the refusal to use some aggressive terms is automatically understood as a declaration of certain political position.
Unfortunately, Ukrainian media and authorities failed to create “counter-speech” in the terminology of ECRI (European Commission against Racism and Intolerance)[1], i.e. the speech intended to approve truth in contrast to manipulative and abusive discourse. Instead, they usually repeat the formulations of aggressive Russian propaganda with a negative sign. Anyone who uses hate speech remains in a weak position, but in Ukrainian situation there is an additional problem: it is almost impossible to fight powerful Russian propaganda machine with its own methods.
There is also a reverse side of political hate speech, especially in the times of conflicts: it’s an “adoration speech”. Equally schematic, black and white, primitive and brutal, the heroization discourse is essentially built on the image of an enemy. Phrases like “our heroes”, “Ukrainian heroes” often occur on TV or radio news, in the war footage. New powerful wave of heroization in Ukraine refers to the victims of Maidan and Ukrainian-Russian war; it became an additional strong factor of legitimization of hate speech as a lexical image of a murderer, aggressor or “betrayer”. This image is extremely generalized and indeterminate, especially in a situation where the investigation of crimes on Maidan remains unfinished (we still don’t know the names of the majority of special police unit soldiers who were shooting at the protesters), and where the killers on the frontline are usually anonymous by definition. “Adoration speech” is actively cultivated especially by right-wing parties and organizations under the auspices of the highest Ukrainian authorities. The image of an enemy created by them as a necessary reverse side of their heroization practices, includes not only separatists (“terrorists”) and pro-Russian population (“vatniks”), but also persons with leftist opinions, liberal activists, LGBTQI-persons, etc. The campaigns of hate sometimes take very aggressive forms: attacks on public discussions, exhibitions, hacking of internet sites, personal threats and battery.
Unfortunately, the problem of hate speech is not on the official agenda in Ukraine now. Even the well-known campaign of blocking of some Russian internet sites in Ukraine in 2017 had little to do with hate speech. Two basic arguments of the authorities were much more pragmatic: 1) cessation of Russian companies’ incomes from the internet advertisement in Ukraine, and 2) protection of Ukrainian citizens’ personal data from possible stealing by Russian secret services. The third and last argument referred to the aggressive Russian propaganda spread by some of the banned internet resources.
The first important question regarding political hate speech in Ukraine concerns the level of radicality of tools to be used to handle the problem. Is “minimal regulation” principle (based on the admittance of freedom of speech as an immutable value and aiming at encouraging further dialogue through “social self-regulation”) applicable in the situation of military conflict? In other words, does the extreme level of political hate in the society justify the partial limitation of freedom of expression and communication in order to create temporary demarcation line between the sides of a conflict? Especially in the situation of hybrid war, which blurs the limits between the private and the political: many internet bots who actively spread hate speech in the web pretend to be private persons, when really acting within a certain political algorithm.
The second question is not less important and sensitive: who can guarantee that the anti-hate-speech campaign (whatever it is) will be carried out in the comprehensive and balanced way – taking into account huge tolerance of Ukraine’s authorities towards “pro-Ukrainian” offensive speech in public use?
I believe that both questions are not rhetorical and can be resolved in dialogue between Ukrainian authorities, civil society and expert communities.
[1] https://www.coe.int/en/web/european-commission-against-racism-and-intolerance/hate-speech-and-violence