Stamping out hate speech or stifling free speech?

Shougat Dasgupta


Since the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7, German officials have made it clear that they support Israel whatever its response. With Germany’s desire to atone for its history, it is understandable that it feels a special duty towards Israel. But the German response has lacked nuance. It has arguably conflated sympathy for Palestine with support for Hamas. And by banning protests and condemning standard criticism of Israeli policies as antisemitic, German authorities have been accused of stifling free speech and expression. 

Nearly anyone can be silenced. On Nov. 9, the leading German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung denounced Indian art critic Ranjit Hoskote for signing an open letter in 2019 that described Zionism as a “racist ideology calling for a settler-colonial, apartheid state where non-Jews have unequal rights.” 

Hoskote was of interest to the German media because he sat on a search committee tasked with appointing the next art director for Documenta. Founded in 1955, Documenta is an internationally significant exhibition of contemporary art held every five years in the historic city of Kassel in central Germany. Within days of the newspaper’s article, Hoskote resigned. Documenta had precipitated his resignation by publicly declaring that his conduct in signing the letter four years ago “was not remotely acceptable” because of its “explicitly anti-Semitic content.”

Even before Hoskote resigned, the Israeli artist Bracha L. Ettinger stepped down from the search committee, citing her inability to continue to participate, describing the feeling of being “paralyzed under rockets, with the details of the massacre committed by Hamas against Israeli civilians, women, and babies, and of the kidnapping of children and babies and civilians, being streamed on my screen during our lunch and coffee breaks.” Though the allegations against Hoskote were public by the time Ettinger resigned, she said they had nothing to do with her decision.

In the wake of both resignations, the remaining four members of the search committee stepped down last week. “In the current circumstances,” they wrote, “we do not believe that there is a space in Germany for an open exchange of ideas.” Intellectual discourse in Germany, they argued, was falling prey to “over-simplification and prejudgments.” Hoskote defended himself in his own lengthy resignation letter. “I feel, strongly,” he said, “that I have been subjected to the proceedings of a kangaroo court.”

Documenta is particularly sensitive to any association with antisemitism because the 2022 edition, intended to foreground perspectives from the Global South, was mired in controversy before the exhibition even opened. An Indonesian collective included caricatures on a 60-foot-long painted banner that the Israeli embassy in Germany said was “Goebbels-style propaganda.” One of the figures on the banner was a soldier with a pig’s head. He wore a Star of David bandana around his neck and a helmet with the word “Mossad” on it, the name of Israel’s intelligence service. In addition, the curators of the exhibition had reportedly not invited any Jewish or Israeli artists to participate. Seven academics conducted an inquiry into events at Documenta, concluding that the exhibition was “an echo chamber for Israel-related antisemitism, and sometimes for pure antisemitism.” 

Keen to avoid a repeat of the 2022 scandal, Documenta urged Hoskote to distance himself from the letter. Instead, he chose to resign, claiming he was “being asked to accept a sweeping and untenable definition of anti-Semitism that conflates the Jewish people with the Israeli state.”

What happened at Documenta mirrors similarly anguished resignations around the world, including within the media. The question we seem unable to answer collectively is this: When does free speech curdle into unacceptable, even hateful speech?

The open letter that Hoskote signed in 2019 condemned an event being held at the Israeli consulate in Mumbai that celebrated the shared purpose of Zionism and Hindutva, the aggressive Hindu nationalist ideology embraced by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Hindutva is usually traced back to the early 1920s and the ideas of V.D. Savarkar, an admirer of Nazi Germany.  Just as Savarkar saw Germany as an example of how to deal with minorities, so his Hindutva descendants now see Israel.

Modi’s Hindu nationalist supporters identify closely with Israel, believing that they share a common enemy in Islamist terrorism. Israel, in their view, is a model for a future Hindu nation in which minorities, particularly Muslims, will have to know their place. This attitude has turned India’s traditional support for Palestine on its head. On social media, Hindutva supporters have been at the forefront of spreading Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian disinformation. Police in India have also been quick to arrest pro-Palestinian protestors, with as many as 200 students detained at a single protest in Delhi last month. In the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir, the government banned all expressions of pro-Palestinian protest.

Free speech, and the right to offer your opinion, however contested, did not apply to either Hoskote or the pro-Palestinian protesters arrested in Delhi. Instead, they were silenced by a narrative that brooks no departures from the ruling party line — whether in Germany or in India.  

Argentina’s AI election

With elections in the United States and India scheduled next year, Argentina’s recently concluded two-part presidential election offers a dire prognosis — expect artificial intelligence to feature prominently. Both candidates in the run-off, Javier Milei (the eventual winner) and Sergio Massa, used AI technology to generate campaign propaganda. Some of this material was satirical, mocking and stylized, but plenty of it was also misleading. The potential is there to fabricate entirely convincing deep fakes in which a person’s image and voice can be manipulated to say and do things they have never said or done.

Should all AI-generated images now carry a disclaimer? Meta, whose social media sites Facebook and Instagram are major platforms for digital advertising, says that from next year it will require advertisers to declare if and how they’ve used AI. Meta also said it would bar political campaigns and advertisers from using Meta’s generative AI technologies.

Massa’s communications team told The New York Times that their use of AI was strictly intended as entertainment and was clearly labeled. But is the point of AI-generated content not to persuade voters that particular images are real? I’m not sure. I think what draws political campaigns to AI is the volume and variety of messages that can be created. The ease with which images are proliferated at scale means that voters will be provided with a carefully constructed picture of candidates and their rivals — one in which fiction is impossible to separate from fact.

Russia jails yet more critics

With so much of the media’s focus on Gaza, the Kremlin can get on with the business of jailing its critics in relative obscurity. Too little attention was paid to the conviction of Sasha Skolichenko, an artist who was arrested last year for swapping out price tags in supermarkets with anti-war messages. She was arrested just a month after Russia passed a law criminalizing any public comment on the war that contradicted the official narrative. On Nov. 16, Skolichenko was sentenced to seven years in prison. “Everyone sees and knows that it’s not a terrorist you’re trying,” she told the judge. “You’re trying a pacifist.” Since the new law came into effect, nearly 20,000 Russians have been arrested for protesting against war in Ukraine.

Just yesterday, a court in Moscow issued a warrant for the arrest of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a founding member of Pussy Riot, the feminist punk rock protest group. She is reportedly not in Russia right now and at least temporarily safe from the long arm of the Kremlin. Tolokonnikova spent nearly two years in a Russian prison back in 2012 for breaking into a Moscow cathedral as part of an anti-Putin protest. The crime Tolokonnikova is now accused of committing seems practically invented for Pussy Riot — “insulting believers’ religious feelings.” 


  • The Washington Post has been doing some terrific reporting out of India, shedding light on the contours of India’s increasingly undemocratic shape. In this recent dispatch, Gerry Shih and Anant Gupta ask industry insiders about Netflix and Amazon preferring to self-censor and pull out of politically and religiously sensitive projects rather than risk annoying the Hindu nationalist government and their fervent online troll army.
  • There’s one more resignation letter that merits mention this week, and that comes from Anne Boyer. The now-former poetry editor of The New York Times Magazine writes that she would rather resign than continue to work alongside “those who aim to acclimatize us to this unreasonable suffering.” “No more ghoulish euphemisms,” she writes about the coverage of Gaza. “No more warmongering lies.”