UK: Ofcom should encourage community media to improve their practices, not reduce them to silence

Ofcom, the UK regulatory authority for audiovisual media, is considering the revocation of the licence of the community radio Iman FM, following the broadcast of hours of lectures containing ‘material likely to encourage or to incite the commission of crime or to lead to disorder.’ The licence has already been provisionally suspended for 3 weeks. Iman FM has admitted it made a mistake broadcasting the lecture and has issued an apology for it. ARTICLE 19 is concerned that permanently taking Iman FM off the air would be a disproportionate sanction that would result in diminishing pluralism and diversity in the local media landscape.

During the month of Ramadan, Iman FM, a Sheffield-based community radio, replaced its usual breakfast live show with a series of lectures by Anwar al-Awlaki, an American radical Muslim cleric who was designated a global terrorist by the US Government in 2010. In June 2017, Ofcom, the UK regulatory authority for audiovisual media and telecommunications, received a complaint that the broadcast encouraged violence and religious hatred.

The radio station explained that they obtained the material from YouTube and that, due to time constraints, they had neglected to fully review the material before it was broadcast. Iman FM also admitted that the lectures were in breach of the Broadcasting Code, which provides for the prohibition of ‘material likely to encourage or incite the commission of crime or lead to disorder’ and of ‘material which contains hate speech’.

On 5 July, Ofcom decided to suspend the licence of Iman FM for 21 days. At the end of this period, the regulatory authority will make a decision either to lift the suspension or to revoke the licence permanently.

ARTICLE 19 recalls that under international human rights law, the most severe categories of ‘hate speech’ must be prohibited. Under international law, any measure that restricts freedom of expression – such as the suspension or the revocation of the licence of a radio station – must be prescribed by law, pursue a legitimate aim as listed in Article 19 (3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and be necessary and proportionate.  Moreover, under Article 20 para 2  of the ICCPR, it is only in situations where there is advocacy of hatred constituting incitement to violence, hostility or discrimination, that prohibitions of the problematic material will be justified. The UN OHCHR-backed “Rabat Plan of Action” (2011) elaborates a six-part test to determine whether that threshold is reached in the given circumstances of any specific case. It calls for a cautious examination of the following criteria:

  • the political, economic, and social context in which the message is communicated;
  • the position of the speaker and their authority or influence over their audience;
  • the intent of the speaker to incite to hatred, discrimination or violence;
  • the content of the expression;
  • the extent of the dissemination of the message;
  • the likelihood that imminent harm will occur.

ARTICLE 19 believes that ensuring that responses to ‘hate speech’ comply with international human rights law is crucial. Prohibitions that censor offensive viewpoints are often counterproductive to the aim of promoting equality, as they fail to address the underlying social roots of the kinds of prejudice that drive ‘hate speech’. In most instances, equality is better promoted through positive measures which increase understanding and tolerance, rather than through censorship.

While regulatory authorities, including Ofcom, have to ensure that licensees comply with the law and specific conditions in their licences, their role is also to enable the development of a media landscape that represents and reflects society as a whole and that presents the broadest possible diversity of voices, viewpoints and languages. Public authorities should also ensure that disadvantaged or excluded groups have equitable access to media resources, including the airwaves.

Moreover, ARTICLE 19 also points out that local radios can play an important part in providing communities with access to and representation in the media, thereby contributing to the strength and liveliness of democratic values such as community cohesion, cultural diversity, and cross-community understanding.

ARTICLE 19 observes that Iman FM have recognized their own shortcomings and acknowledged that the lectures were in violation of their obligations under their licence and the law. We also note that a 3-week suspension of licence – a decision which de facto reduces a broadcaster to silence – is in itself a serious sanction. In order to support pluralism and diversity in the local media landscape, the regulatory authority should encourage licensees to improve their practices rather than applying very harsh sanctions at the first breach of legal and licence obligations. We believe that it is possible to set up practical measures that would prevent the repetition of the errors, while allowing Iman FM to continue to operate.

ARTICLE 19 is concerned that a decision of revocation of the licence of Iman FM would amount to an unnecessary and disproportionate sanction which would not be compatible with international standards on freedom of expression.