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Jacinda Ardern's 2022 UN speech sparks debate on free speech and censorship

Free speech, hate speech, and censorship have taken centre stage as a year-old video featuring a speech by Harvard fellow and former New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, gains traction across social media platforms.

While some view her speech as an “attack on free speech,” others believe it’s crucial, particularly in today’s era, to prevent misinformation from spreading under the guise of “free speech”.

The video is believed to originate from her address during the general debate of the 77th Session of the General Assembly of the UN in New York, held in September 2022.

In her speech, Ardern initially delved into the concept of nuclear war, labelling it a ‘weapon of the past.’ However, she swiftly transitioned to the subject of “new weapons,” which, according to her, encompassed “cyber attacks, widespread disinformation, and the manipulation of entire communities and societies.”

Ardern raised the question of the consequences when false information is disseminated repeatedly across multiple platforms, thus inciting individuals to take up arms, threaten the security of others, turn a blind eye to atrocities, or even become complicit in them.

Ardern cited the example of the tragic terrorist attack in 2019: “We can begin by addressing violent extremism and terrorist content online. On the 15th of March 2019, New Zealand witnessed a horrific terrorist attack targeting its Muslim community. Over 50 people lost their lives while at prayer. The assailant live-streamed the attack on a popular social media platform in an attempt to gain notoriety and propagate hatred.” She noted that, at the time, the ability to counteract such actions was limited.

Ardern’s focus shifted towards prevention and understanding the intricate connections between online environments and real-world factors that can lead to radicalisation. She posed critical questions: “How can you effectively end a war when people believe its existence is not only legal but noble? How do you combat climate change when there is disbelief in its existence? How do you safeguard the human rights of others when they face hateful and perilous rhetoric and ideologies? Although the weapons may have evolved, the objectives of those who employ them often remain the sameto sow chaos, undermine others’ defences, disband communities, and weaken the collective strength of cooperating nations.”

In South Africa, ongoing discussions and debates on hate speech are prevalent. Earlier this year, the National Assembly passed a bill to criminalise hate speech and hate crimes, sparking debates and concerns about its potential impact on freedom of speech. Nevertheless, the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill garnered significant support.

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