Speech by State Secretary Winkler at 22 May 2006 at the conference "Racism, Xenophobia and the Media"
Racism, Xenophobia and the Media:
Towards respect and understanding of all religions and cultures
State Secretary Hans Winkler
Vienna, 22 May 2006
The continued existence of racism, xenophobia and other forms of discrimination and intolerance, including Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia is, unfortunately, an undeniable fact. Such phenomena exist in all our countries, I am afraid, even increasingly so. The news that reach us almost every day are most concerning. Immigrants are being harassed, worse, attacked, even killed, racially motivated crimes are on the rise and inter-religious and inter-cultural relations are under a heavy strain.
What is particularly disquieting for me is the fact that the situation is as alarming as it is despite the laudable efforts of the many well established organisations and institutions in the field of combating racism and other forms of intolerance. They all have a vast amount of acquired experience and expertise through their involvement in the fight against racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance. Beginning with the United Nations system, which includes the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in Europe with institutions like the EU Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, the Council of Europe with ECRI, OSCE with ODIHR and its special representatives and many other organizations and institutions which all are unanimous in condemning all forms of racism, have produced numerous studies and analysis and have adopted scores of resolutions and action plans, the danger of resurgence of these evil scourges continues to exist.
But, let me also state my firm conviction that we must not be discouraged. Despite the bleak picture that I painted in my introduction, we must never give in and accept evil. Governments, civil society and international organizations and certainly not least, the media, must continue to stem the tide, work hand in hand and take into account the efforts of the others. Only a comprehensive strategy, involving all layers of society will lead to the desired results.
Today we discuss these issues in a very special context, in the framework of the Barcelona Process, the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. The Barcelona process provides, indeed, a crucial framework for the Euro-Mediterranean cooperation in the field of migration and, most particularly, by serving as a tool for the promotion of mutual respect and understanding, for the interaction of civil societies and for the creation of a dialogue between cultures on the basis of an equal partnership.
When the Barcelona Process has sometimes been criticised for a lack of results, it has to be taken into account that the difficult political situation in the Middle East weighs heavily on the initiatives undertaken within the Barcelona Process.
This partnership between the EU and the countries around the Mediterranean - including Israel - is of particular relevance not only in general political, economic and cultural terms, but in particular in the context of the fight against racism and intolerance.
The recent controversy over cartoons in a Danish newspaper made us realise how fragile relations between different cultures and different religions even in our enlightened age really are. Different concepts sometimes meet head on. On the one hand stands the right to freedom of expression, a right for which generations fought and died and which today is not only a right enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights but which is one of the center pieces of modern democracy and, on the other hand, religious sensitivities, flowing from an equally important right, namely freedom of religion and worship according to one’s preference, must be taken into consideration.
This situation calls for increased dialogue, in good faith and with respect for the beliefs and the sensitivities of the other. We are privileged to have a forum like our Euro-Mediterranean partnership and we should make full use of it. Today’s seminar is a good opportunity to have such an open and at the same time, respectful dialogue.
What then should we do?
I would like to mention three issues which, in my opinion, need to be dealt with in this context.
First, we must pay attention to the root causes of racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and intolerance.
As old as human history itself, intolerance, xenophobia and racism stem from institutionalized forms of exclusion, the pursuit and defense of privilege and internalized system of the quest of superiority of one group over another. While human diversity, be it cultural, religious or racial, attributes richness to human society, these differences have been misused to fuel hatred and tolerance to a level of destruction of communities.
The last century has witnessed the most severe, serious and devastating expressions of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. These reasons were, at least partially, different from what they are today. Ideology of superiority propagated by certain groups and the denial of human qualities to groups, in particular Jews, were the root causes of the Holocaust and untold human suffering.
Racism, however, is still with us in varying forms and degrees and is in fact gaining ground as the process of globalization, unfolds.
Internal and international conflicts are today often the cause for racial tensions, hatred and intolerance against members of groups different from one’s own group. It is vital that all domestic communities - whether ethnic, religious or national diasporas - are assured the right to coexist in social harmony regardless of conflicts between countries with which they may identify emotively, spiritually or nostalgically. Inter-communal relations must be decoupled from such international conflicts as a first step to containing the growth of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other expressions of hatred and intolerance.
Today’s vulnerable groups which are particularly in danger of being victimized are different from the past. Migrants, asylum seekers, people of different sexual orientation and adherents of religions which are not the majority religion in a given society are today particularly targeted by extreme nationalists, shameless populists without any sense of responsibility and members of groups of the far and extreme right. This is the biotope in which racism, xenophobia and intolerance thrives. But, respecting diversity does not mean creating "parallel societies" separated by walls of indifference, ignorance and hostility. Multiculturalism or "cultural diversity" should not be used as an excuse for ignoring the fundamental human rights.
We all know that anti-Semitism ultimately led to Auschwitz and other camps of mass murder. The evil of anti-Semitism is still with us. We should draw the necessary lesson from history and never ignore the development of discrimination against other races, religions and cultural orientations. I would like to mention in this context the importance of the work that OSCE has carried out in the field of combating Ant-Semitism. It showed that while many features of this evil are identical to those of other forms of intolerance, it is my conviction that the fight against Ant-Semitism requires in addition special strategies. The conferences held with this at the center, in Vienna, Berlin and Cordoba have contributed valuable insights to develop such strategies to fight against Anti-Semitism and Special Representative Weisskirchen is doing an outstanding job to raise public awareness and keep us alert.
Secondly, we must acknowledge and support the crucial role the media can play in a positive, but also in a negative sense. Any report on a specific event, of a situation, any description of the characteristics of a group, a minority or a religious community in a given society will by necessity be an abbreviation of reality. No report, no matter how lengthy it may be, can be a true and full copy of reality. Complexities and shades of meaning might be misrepresented, even if there is a genuine attempt at objectivity. Notwithstanding these difficulties, I believe, journalists and media representatives in general should try to present reality adequately and fairly. Of course, obviously, the most acute danger would result from stereotypes and prejudice in reporting being used on purposes with the intent to influence public, maybe even with the intent to hurt and insult. Stereotypes, as well as biased reporting by the media, can also have a profound impact on the impressions of the population with regard to certain groups of people. Sensationalist coverage often results in disproportionate reporting on certain groups that presents an exaggerated impression of the reality.
On the other hand, and this is the positive side of the coin, freedom of the press and the free flow of information and ideas are powerful ways to combat racism, discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance. Societies that inhibit freedom of expression also inhibit the full enjoyment of human rights and foster intolerance in presenting an open and tolerant society to the public, and in countering prejudice and hatred.
What can we do to achieve this?
Certainly not by trying to restrict freedom of the media by legal means. Legally binding code of conducts will not work and they run counter the principle of the right to expression. Only self-restraint by the media themselves is an option in my opinion. Media must have an interest, moral but in the final analysis also economic, to assume responsibility vis à vis the community they serve. They are part of that community and must therefore act responsible like any other member of the community.
One way to achieve a higher degree of objectivity and of fostering understanding of the situation of members of minority groups would be to hire more journalists who belong to minority groups and - why not - more participation of immigrants in the media. This would give them a platform for self-representation, which might help to reduce prejudices and stereotypes that exist with respect to them. At the same time, it might support minorities and in particular immigrants in their search for identity.
Thirdly, the State and all its institutions bear a large share in the responsibility to fight racism and intolerance. Most important, the State - government and parliament alike - must create the legal and institutional framework in which discrimination for all the reasons laid down in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination are outlawed and cases of racism and discrimination which go beyond the limits of freedom of expression can be prevented through deterrence and if this does not work, prosecuted and punished by the independent court system. This sometimes raises difficult questions of judgment. There are no clear answers as the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights on cases involving Article 10 of the Human Rights Convention bear ample witness. In the end borderline questions must be decided by courts and nobody else. This is what a functioning system of rule of law demands; censorship by political authorities can certainly not be the answer.
But the responsibility of the State goes beyond providing a legal basis within which private persons, the media and civil society operate. As a matter of vital importance to societal harmony, it is crucial that the political leadership in every country actually raises to the task of leading every effort at local, regional, national and international level to create political, social and economic conditions in order to inhibit the breeding ground for intolerance and discrimination. A key part of that leadership role is the formulation of pro-active and positive measures aimed at countering prejudices and promoting human values. Political parties, especially in times of election campaigns, bear a special responsibility. They set the tone that others will follow and they must show a degree of self-restraint one can expect in a mature democracy.
Needless to say, an effective strategy for eradication cannot solely rely on legal, political and judicial measures. An intellectual and ethical dimension should also be brought to life in order to arrive at a deeper understanding of the cultural and ideological roots of these phenomena.
It is obvious that education is a big factor in influencing the thinking of individuals and can often shape their thinking towards other communities as well as their behaviors. Secretary General Kofi Annan said 2001 in Durban: "Let us remember that no one is born a racist. Children learn racism as they grow up, from the society around them - and too often the stereotypes are reinforced, deliberately or inadvertently, by the mass media". As was stated by a group of NGOs a few years ago: "Racism exists in our minds and hearts. Change of attitude and social transformation will happen only if we can open our minds and hearts through education and consciousness. Thus transformation within us is the first vital step. This will enable us to positively influence the communities we live in, in order to bring about tolerance, respect and appreciation".
To build solidarity against racism, we need to network at the national, regional and international level to ensure that the commitments made on the global and the regional level, by legally binding texts or in resolutions or at various conferences are respected and observed.
We must commit ourselves to combat against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance by joining hands together.