Covering and avoiding religious hate speech


In 2010, a Florida pastor with just a few dozen followers attracted international media coverage when he announced plans to burn copies of the Quran on the anniversary of 9/11. By taking the bait, media outlets became complicit in advancing his hate-filled agenda, making Terry Jones a household name in the U.S. and far beyond.

Reporters have a responsibility to cover the facts, but we also have a responsibility to avoid unnecessarily stoking hatred and violence, especially when religious or political tensions are running high.

Hate speech masked as journalism is all too common in many parts of the world and does a disservice to both readers and society. Sometimes it merely reinforces unpleasant stereotypes; other times it contributes to evils far worse.

Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines used hate-filled broadcasts to exacerbate Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu’s unsubstantiated Facebook posts have led to riots and deaths in Myanmar. And Fox News hosts such as Jeanine Pirro have delivered dangerous tirades against Muslims.

From Myanmar to America, hate speech stemming from or directed at religious groups and individuals can lead to violence. But what constitutes hate speech, and how do we balance the right to freedom of expression with a need to prevent the spread of dangerous rhetoric?

What constitutes hate speech?

There’s little consensus on how to define “hate speech” across the world. Broadly speaking, we can think of it as speech aimed at denigrating people based on some aspects of their individual or group identities.

Legal discrepancies and local sensitivities mean that the same quote from a source or line in a story might be considered discriminatory, hateful, offensive, dangerous, libelous, blasphemous, treasonous, seditious or perfectly acceptable from one country to the next. It’s important to familiarize yourself with local red lines when reporting on controversial issues at home and abroad.

Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights broadly defines hate speech as any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. The U.S. outlaws speech intended to and likely to provoke imminent lawless action — a very high threshold. The legal bar is much lower in most countries, resulting in bans on homophobia, racism, blasphemy, religious defamation and a range of other speech and thought crimes.

Religion as source and target of hate

Conflict is bound to arise when different groups express mutually exclusive claims to truth and believe salvation to be on the line. For this reason, religion and hateful or offensive speech often overlap in complicated ways. We see Christians slamming Mormons for following a “false prophet,” Jews attacking Hindus for worshipping multiple deities, and Buddhists persecuting Muslims for not conforming. We also see hatred within religions: Sunnis vs. Shiites, ultra-Orthodox vs. Reform Jews, Protestants vs. Catholics. Then there’s hatred exchanged on other belief grounds: fundamentalists denying rights to LGBT people; “New Atheists” lampooning believers of any stripe. These inter- and intra-religious tensions often result in faith-based hate speech, even if religion is just one factor in a broader conflict over resources, culture, politics or other fault lines.

A 2015 Pew Research Center report citing 2013 data found harassment of religious groups in 164 countries. Christians, Muslims and Jews face harassment in the most countries, but Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Bahá’ís, Hindus, Buddhists and people of other faiths are also subject to social hostilities and government restrictions on their faiths, as are nonbelievers.

Identifying hate speech: A five-point test

The Ethical Journalism Network’s five-point test of speech for journalism in context highlights a few points journalists and editors should consider when deciding how to report potentially inflammatory news:

  1. The content and form of speech

Journalists should ask themselves whether the speech they are quoting is dangerous. Will it incite violence, intensify hatred or lead to prosecution under local laws?

  1. The economic, social and political climate

Hateful speech can become more dangerous amid economic, social and political strife. Where insecurity and instability reign supreme, journalists should evaluate what impact quoting hateful speech might have on its intended targets.

  1. The position or status of the speaker

Journalists should not act as indiscriminate megaphones for hate speech. If a prominent source makes hateful, false or malicious claims, those claims should be scrutinized and reported accordingly. If a nonpublic figure makes unsubstantiated claims, they should be ignored if not newsworthy.

  1. The reach of the speech

Limited off-color remarks in private conversations are unlikely to produce much harm. That changes if hateful remarks are repeatedly broadcast for all to see, a good indicator that the speaker may be trying to deliberately promote hostility.

  1. The objectives of the speech

Journalists should strive to determine whether speech is deliberately designed to denigrate the rights of others and should know what forms of expression are subject to legal sanctions.

When confronted with incidents of political hate speech, EJN advises journalists not to sensationalize the story and to pause for a moment before publishing to think through potential consequences.

Identifying dangerous speech: A five-point test

“Dangerous speech” is inflammatory speech that has the capacity to catalyze violence among different groups. Susan Benesch, who heads the Dangerous Speech Project, says the most dangerous speech acts occur when the following five factors are maximized:

  1. The speaker is powerful and has a high degree of influence over the audience
  1. The audience has grievances and fear that the speaker can cultivate
  1. The speech act is understood as a call to violence
  1. There exists a social or historical context propitious for violence, for any of a variety of reasons, including long-standing competition between groups for resources, lack of efforts to solve grievances, or previous episodes of violence
  1. There exists a means of dissemination that is influential in itself, for example because it is the sole or primary source of news for the relevant audience

Use these two five-point tests to help determine whether your sources’ statements, your colleagues’ broadcasts and your own writing could be considered dangerous hate speech.

How to handle offensive religious speech

News about religion is often negative. Terrible things happen every day, offending the sensibilities of reasonable readers the world over. Someone might be upset by facts or ideas you publish, but that alone is no reason to censor them. A journalist’s duty is to inform the public, not to shield people from uncomfortable or upsetting realities. Journalists also have a duty to limit harm. The newsworthiness of a story should be balanced with concern for the safety of sources and vulnerable communities that might be affected by your reporting.

The tenets, norms and nuances of a particular faith sometimes mean that a minority or majority of believers will consider certain forms of expression hateful or offensive, even if they are perfectly legal in most countries. The 2005 Danish cartoons controversy, 2012 Innocence of Muslims YouTube debacle and 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks all demonstrated the dangers that can arise when taboos — depicting the Prophet Muhammad, in these cases — are broken.

Outrage over blasphemous artworks such as “Piss Christ,” nude Hindu deities and music videos by Madonna, Lady Gaga and Tori Amos shows that Muslims aren’t the only ones who take offense to irreverent portrayals of their sacred beliefs. When reporting on these tensions, try to understand why individuals or groups are offended, but don’t confuse freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression — both fundamental human rights — with a nonexistent right to be shielded from offense.

Before journalists can weigh whether to publish potentially offensive religious terms or images, they first need to learn what different faith groups consider offensive and how they might react. Consult local faith leaders and check out ReligionLink’s various reporting guides to ensure that your language is accurate and nuanced.

The five-point tests above can help you calculate whether source quotes that some readers consider religiously offensive are likely to prompt violence or actual harm. Sources who resort to sensational rhetoric, hateful slurs or dehumanizing stereotypes should be ignored or challenged by including alternative voices in your reporting. Biased, misleading or otherwise inaccurate portrayals of individuals and groups have no place in a responsible journalist’s toolkit.

It’s important to remember that journalists do not enjoy absolute freedom of expression. We all face legal and ethical limits on our reporting, and our profession’s harm limitation principle should be carefully considered when determining how to handle potentially offensive religious speech. Different media outlets will arrive at different conclusions in this balancing act, as republication of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons made clear. Some outlets published the magazine’s most controversial cartoons, citing their newsworthiness. Many did not. Whatever rationale shapes such decisions, basic news values should always trump fear of causing offense.

Story ideas

In 2014, Religion News Service did a reporting series on efforts to combat religious hatred online. Here are some questions to help you brainstorm story ideas relevant to your audience.

  • Someone cries “hate speech.” How does that person define it? Does that definition square with local legal interpretations?
  • Someone comes across anti-Semitic or Islamophobic graffiti in your community. How do local officials handle the situation? How do members of the faith community targeted respond? What do local members of other faiths have to say?
  • The comments section below that latest viral video sensation has become a cesspool of religious hatred. Is such incivility common offline? If not, what about this form of online communication prompts people to abandon civility?
  • Freedom of expression vs. freedom of religion or belief. How is hatred manifested when these “complementary” rights come into conflict?
  • Religious extremism vs. nonreligious extremism: How does hatred lobbed by religious individuals compare with that bandied about by “radical atheists”?
  • What hypocrisies emerge when individuals claim to follow a peaceful and loving faith, only to use that faith to espouse hatred against others? How do they justify the perceived ironies or contradictions inherent in their behaviors and beliefs?
  • What practical steps are individuals, faith communities and governments taking to fight religious hatred? How effective have they been?

Addressing religious hatred in online comments

In a 2013 study of more than 100 news outlets, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers found that stories about religion were among the most commented on but that the quality of those comments was among the worst. What is it about religion that often draws hostile, offensive and hate-filled comments online?

In partnership with Google, Religion Newswriters Foundation posed this question to an online panel of international media professionals in September 2014 as part of a broader discussion around how best to moderate online comments when religious hatred and intolerance arise. The Google Hangout highlighted positive steps news organisations can take to uphold freedom of expression when moderating sensitive or controversial comments. You can watch the hour-long discussion here:

Brian Pellot, director of global strategy at Religion Newswriters Foundation, moderated the panel, which featured Tom Heneghan, religion editor at Reuters in Paris; Kevin Eckstrom, editor-in-chief at Religion News Service in Washington; Darshini Kandasamy, former assistant news editor at Malaysiakini in Kuala Lumpur; Tiffany Stanley, managing editor at Religion & Politics in Washington; and Aidan White, director of the Ethical Journalism Network in London. Comments from Cherian George, associate professor of journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University, were also included.

Panelists agreed that online comments offer readers an important space to express themselves, to debate and to provide additional information to reporters and fellow readers. Allowing online comments can help news outlets foster civil discourse if an environment is created in which people feel safe to discuss hot-button issues. While some websites attempt to establish such safety through “real name policies,” the option of anonymity can be crucial in bringing marginalized and vulnerable communities to the discussion.

At Religion News Service, users must register to comment, and one member of the staff moderates all comments post-publication. Expletives are sometimes deleted, but the substance of comments remains intact if not in violation of the site’s user agreement policy, which prohibits obscene, indecent or offensive language; content that is defamatory, abusive, bullying, harassing, racist, hateful or violent; and that which includes ethnic slurs, religious intolerance, homophobia or personal attacks.

Darshini Kandasamy explained that because Malaysiakini is behind a paywall, only registered users can post comments. Reporters monitor their own stories and help keep readers in check with a system of escalating warnings that can eventually lead to temporary or permanent bans if comments consistently violate terms of engagement.

Moderating comments can be expensive and time-consuming, but panelists agreed that doing so is crucial to prevent the flow of hatred, which can lead to offline violence. Panelists suggested outsourcing comments to comment hosting services such as Disqus or Facebook to improve overall quality and rewarding high-quality comments with positive recognition.

Panelists were in broad agreement with the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers’ recommendations that media outlets publish clear guidelines for commenters, hire a community manager to keep on top of conversations if resources allow, encourage journalists to participate in conversations unless there is a specific reason not to, find ways to surface the most valuable comments, give feedback and educate readers when comments are altered or removed, seek legal advice and share it with staff, and seek to amplify minority views by including minority voices in the reporting process.


  • Watch Moderating Religious Hatred Online, a September 2014 Google Hangout panel featuring media professionals from across the world debating and discussing how best to moderate online comments when religious hatred and intolerance come into play.
  • Watch Unpacking hate speech, a March 2012 video featuring Susan Benesch, director of the Dangerous Speech Project; Agnès Callamard, former executive director of Article 19; and Nazila Ghanea, a lecturer in international human rights law at the University of Oxford. They examine the pros and cons of the First Amendment in the U.S. vs. hate speech legislation in Europe.
  • Read Fox News declares war on responsible journalism in dangerous tirade against Muslims (January 2015) in which Religion News Service’s Brian Pellot applies hate speech and dangerous speech tests to Fox News coverage after the 2015 Charlie Hebdo Paris attacks.
  • Read Combating Online Hate Speech (2014), Religion News Service’s series of 12 stories on religious tolerance and combating hate speech online. The stories, produced in late 2014 with support from Google, address hate speech in the U.S., Myanmar, France, Germany, the U.K., Kenya and Malaysia.
  • Read 19 arguments for and against hate speech bans (March 2014), in which Eric Heinze, professor of law and humanities at Queen Mary University of London, identifies the main arguments for laws restricting hate speech and says none are valid for mature Western democracies.
  • Read Regulating hate speech: lessons for Asia (March 2014), in which writer and academic Cherian George discusses how hate speech affects Myanmar and how peace-building workshops represent a positive step forward.
  • Read Regulating hate speech: how not to do it (March 2013), in which Professor Cherian George, director of the Asia Journalism Fellowship in Singapore, offers a useful table explaining differences between what he terms “traditional” and “liberal” approaches to hate speech regulation.
  • Read On Hate Speech: The Westboro Baptist Church, Campuses, and Nazis in Virginia (March 2011), in which Gabriel Walters, a former legal fellow at the ACLU of Virginia, uses Westboro Baptist Church’s organized protests at military funerals and offensive student expression on public college campuses to explore the contours of hate speech in the U.S.
  • Read From incitement to self-censorship: the media in the Kenyan elections of 2007 and 2013 (February 2014), in which Free Speech Debate’s Katherine Bruce-Lockhart looks at the media’s role in two Kenyan elections and argues that peace and critical media coverage should not be mutually exclusive.
  • Read When does hate speech become dangerous speech? Consider Kenya and Rwanda (April 2013), in which Free Speech Debate’s Katherine Bruce-Lockhart explores vital questions about the connections between words and violence in light of Kenyan broadcaster Joshua Arap Sang’s trial.
  • Read Why the EU’s “harmonisation machine” should stay away from history (August 2012), in which Claus Leggewie, director of the Essen Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities in Germany, and Horst Meier, a legal scholar and freelance writer, argue that memory laws are the wrong way for Europeans to remember and debate their difficult pasts.
  • Read Shoot the Boer: hate music? (July 2012), in which Free Speech Debate’s Nimi Hoffmann explores whether a South African court was right to ban the anti-apartheid song “Shoot the Boer” after ruling it hate speech in 2011.
  • Read Why hate speech should not be banned (April 2012), in which writer Kenan Malik argues that restrictions on hate speech are not a means of tackling bigotry but of rebranding often obnoxious ideas or arguments as immoral.
  • Read Hate speech in online media in South East Europe (2014), in which The Albanian Media Institute discusses how media should deal with hatred online and features specific examples from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey.
  • Read The harms of hate speech legislation (March 2012), in which free speech lawyer Ivan Hare argues that hate speech legislation chills freedom of expression more than it protects vulnerable minorities.
  • Read The harm of hate speech (March 2012), in which Jeremy Waldron, professor of social and political theory at Oxford University, argues the case for legislation against hate speech.
  • Read Islam between free speech and hate speech (March 2012), in which Iranian cleric Mohsen Kadivar argues that the execution of apostates should be annulled but that  insulting religion should be recognized as a crime.
  • Read Use With Care: A Reporter’s Glossary of Loaded Language in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (2013). The International Press Institute’s guidebook for media professionals reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was designed to help journalists choose their words in a way that is sensitive to the cultural and political realities in the region.
  • Read A Clash of Cultures: Hate Speech, Taboos, Blasphemy and the Role of News Media (October 2013), a 2013 report by the Center for International Media Assistance that addresses conflicts between free expression and speech that can be considered offensive, online and offline.
  •  Read Tackling Manifestations of Collective Religious Hatred (December 2013), in which U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Heiner Bielefeldt makes several recommendations for tackling manifestations of collective religious hatred, focusing on the root causes of such hatred and aggravating political factors.
  •  Read Beginners’ guide to content restriction for Myanmar (2014), Article 19’s guide explores why people engage in incitement and explains that hate speech laws usually aim to protect the safety and social equality of vulnerable groups, whereas defamation laws typically protect the reputations of individuals.
  •  Read Reporting for Change: A Handbook for Local Journalists in Crisis Areas (2004), in which the Institute for War & Peace Reporting offers advice on how journalists should handle emotional, dehumanizing and inflammatory language, hate speech and incitement to violence in the course of their reporting.
  •  Read Needs assessment on promoting ethics and transparency in Pakistani media (2014), in which the Pakistan Press Foundation urges journalists to cover sectarian or faith-based conflicts with strict editorial control, multilayered gatekeeping and a great deal of sensitivity.
  •  Read Getting the Facts Right: Reporting Ethnicity & Religion (2012), a report produced by the Media Diversity Institute that illustrates how good journalism can play a critical role in overcoming ignorance, bigotry, injustice and hatred, which lead to discrimination and social tension.
  •  Read Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) media reference guide, 8th edition (updated 2010), GLAAD’s media reference guide advocating fair, accurate and inclusive media coverage of LGBT individuals and hate crimes perpetrated against them. It also discusses relevant hate crime laws in the U.S.
  • Read ARTICLE 19’s Hate Speech Explained toolkit, which provides a guide to identifying hate speech and how to effectively counter it, while protecting the rights to freedom of expression and equality. It responds to a growing demand for clear guidance on identifying hate speech, and for responding to the challenges “hate speech” pose, within a human rights framework.

International organizations

  • Article 19

    Article 19 is a London-based human rights organization that focuses on freedom of expression. The organization has offices around the world, and a section of its website addresses hate speech.

  • The Ethical Journalism Network

    The Ethical Journalism Network is a London-based global campaign promoting good governance and ethical conduct in media. The network’s member organizations, which include Religion Newswriters Foundation, can speak about hate speech in their respective countries of focus.

  • Free Speech Debate

    Free Speech Debate, based at the University of Oxford, has produced more than 70 articles, videos and discussion pieces that specifically address hate speech.

    Contact Timothy Garton Ash.

  • Freedom of Expression Institute

    The Freedom of Expression Institute was established in 1994 to protect and foster the right to freedom of expression in South Africa.

    Contact Sheniece Linderboom.

  • Hrant Dink Foundation

    The Hrant Dink Foundation has run the Media Watch on Hate Speech project since 2009 to counter racist and discriminatory discourse in Turkish press.

  • IFEX

    IFEX is a Toronto-based network of global organizations connected by a shared commitment to defend and promote freedom of expression as a fundamental human right. Sort its nearly 100 members by region or by using the map on the network’s website.

  • Institute for War & Peace Reporting

    The Institute for War & Peace Reporting is an international not-for-profit organization governed by senior journalists; experts in peace-building, development and human rights; regional specialists; and business professionals. IWPR has offices in London; The Hague, Netherlands; and Washington.

  • International Network Against Cyberhate

    The International Network Against Cyberhate was founded in 2002 to combat discrimination online. It is based in Amsterdam. Contact Suzette Bronkhorst.

  • Media Diversity Institute

    The Media Diversity Institute works internationally to encourage and facilitate responsible media coverage of diversity. It aims to prevent the media from intentionally or unintentionally spreading prejudice, intolerance and hatred that can lead to social tensions, disputes and violent conflict. MDI encourages instead fair, accurate, inclusive and sensitive media coverage in order to promote understanding between different groups and cultures. Offices are in London; New York; Cairo; and Belgrade, Serbia.

  • No Hate Speech Movement

    The No Hate Speech Movement is a youth campaign of the Council of Europe to reduce the levels of acceptance of hate speech online.

  • Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe

    The OSCE is a regional security organization with participating states in Europe, Central Asia and North America. It deals with issues such as human trafficking, arms control, conflict prevention and resolution, human rights and nondiscrimination. It fights deliberate and violent hate speech in the media through awareness-raising projects, education and regular meetings with media outlets, editors and journalists. Contact the OSCE’s representative on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatovic.


  • Pakistan Coalition for Ethical Journalism

    The Coalition for Ethical Journalism is a global campaign committed to strengthening standards of ethics, good governance and self-regulation across all platforms of media.

    Contact Puruesh Chaudhary.

  • Romedia Foundation

    Romedia Foundation, based in Budapest, Hungary, aims to disseminate an insider’s view of Romani issues, empower Romani activists and challenge stereotypes and hatred using new media.

    Contact Executive Director Katalin Barsony.

  • Sentinel Project

    The Sentinel Project, based in Toronto, works on early warning systems to prevent genocide. Its project Hatebase was built to help government agencies, NGOs, research organizations and other philanthropic individuals and groups use hate speech as a predictor for regional violence. The Sentinel Project focuses on these issues in Myanmar (Burma), Iran, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan and Sri Lanka.

    Contact Chris Tuckwood.

International sources

  • Elda Brogi

    Elda Brogi is the Scientific Coordinator of European University Institute’s Center for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom. Elda’s main interests span Constitutional, European and Media law. She teaches Information and Communication Law at the University of Florence. She is a member of the Committee of Experts on Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists at the Council of Europe.

  • Iginio Gagliardone

    Iginio Gagliardone is a research fellow in the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies and a member of the Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy at the University of Oxford. He is lead author of the forthcoming UNESCO Internet Study: Hate Speech Online, due in 2015.

  • Timothy Garton Ash

    Timothy Garton Ash is a British historian, author and commentator based in Oxford, U.K. He founded the project Free Speech Debate in 2011 to explore freedom of expression issues, including hate speech, from a global perspective.

  • Cherian George

    Cherian George is an associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist University School of Communication and director of the Asia Journalism Fellowship in Singapore. He has written extensively on hate speech and ethical media.

  • Leslie Green

    Les Green is professor of the philosophy of law at Balliol College, Oxford. He is working on a book about “right speech” and argues that Buddhist ideas about avoiding divisive, abusive and false speech can help us live together well in free societies.

  • Michael Pan

    Michael Pan is project director at Myanmar News Lab, an information platform launched by Internews to enhance the information environment around peace and conflict issues in Myanmar.

  • Brian Pellot

    Brian Pellot is director of global strategy at Religion News Service and Religion Newswriters Foundation. He writes about international hate speech, free speech, religious freedom and media freedom issues in his RNS column On Faith and is based in London and Cape Town.

  • Nay Phone Latt

    Nay Phone Latt is a Myanmar blogger and activist based in Yangon. He co-founded the local anti-hate speech campaign Panzagar.

  • Matt Schissler

    Matt Schissler is an adviser to the civil society group Paung Ku, a member organization of the Panzagar anti-hate speech campaign in Myanmar.

  • Chris Tuckwood

    Chris Tuckwood is executive director of the Sentinel Project, a Canada-based nonprofit that works on early warning systems to prevent genocide. Hatebase was built to help government agencies, NGOs, research organizations and other philanthropic individuals and groups use hate speech as a predictor for regional violence.

  • Aidan White

    Aidan White is director of the Ethical Journalism Network, a London-based global campaign promoting good governance and ethical conduct in media. EJN’s member organizations, which include Religion Newswriters Foundation, can speak about hate speech in their respective countries of focus.

National organizations

  • American Civil Liberties Union

    The ACLU addresses hate speech in its work on free speech, religion, LGBT rights, human rights and racial justice.

  • Anti-Defamation League

    The Anti-Defamation League tracks discrimination based on religion. ADL has 30 regional offices. Check with local ADL officials for a breakdown on the number and type of antisemitic incidents in your area and for leads on interfaith initiatives.

  • Center for International Media Assistance

    The Center for International Media Assistance is dedicated to improving U.S. efforts to promote independent media in developing countries around the world.

  • Dangerous Speech Project

    The Dangerous Speech Project works to prevent violence by diminishing the harmful effects of inflammatory public speech without harming freedom of expression. The project’s focus countries include Canada, Kenya, Myanmar, Nigeria, Sri Lanka and the U.S.

    Contact Susan Benesch.

  • Southern Poverty Law Center

    The Southern Poverty Law Center monitors hate groups and other extremists throughout the United States and exposes their activities to law enforcement agencies, the media and the public.

    Contact: 334--956-8200.

National sources