BBC News Arabic uses queer-phobic hate speech
By: Nicole Samaha
Translated by: Basel Eren
Edited by: Lillianne Elkady
It’s unfortunate that this discriminatory reporting does not cease (willingly so), as if the queer community in the MENA region can withstand any more attacks from the media. Everyone is aware of the local media’s attitude when it comes to gay and trans issues; topics that are always exploited for gaining viewers and stirring public controversy. It’s a tactic used by channels and programs to appease a society plagued by rampant transphobia and homophobia. With every incident related to the queer community, program anchors eagerly join that inciting “party”. Afterwards, they enjoy the heated applause and passionate cheers thrown by viewers, whether it’s through their website or social media. All of this of course, is at the cruel expense of compromising millions of queer lives, without a shred of professionalism let alone basic human decency
Due to the countless incidents of unprofessional, unethical and inhumane reporting, we are no longer surprised when we see a local news network using queer-phobic hate speech. However, what happened recently was very strange, which is the involvement of “BBC Arabic” in the incitement competition – this was done using offensive and discriminatory wording against trans and gay people in their news story headlines. These headlines normalize and reinforce misconceptions that queer activists have long fought (and are still trying) to correct. BBC Arabic is a very well-known and influential news network with a wide reach, and thus has a strong impact on most people in our region. What’s even stranger is that this unprecedented move came from a network that has always took pride in having values that respect differences and work against discrimination in all its forms. In a short period of time, two derogatory headlines were published. The first was when famous make-up artist “Nikkie de Jager” came out as a trans woman; the news was published on the network’s official Facebook page with an offensive and transphobic headline “Makeup star Nikkie de Jager reveals she used to be a man”! Not only does this insensitive headline resembles yellow press (which consists of irrelevant, shocking and crude headlines to bait a reader to continue reading on a link), this headline promotes discrimination of transgender women via reinforcing a stigmatizing misconception. Trans women continue to suffer from this pervasive notion, and we have tirelessly worked towards correcting it along with other misconceptions. In addition to the insult of describing trans women in such a harmful manner, it falls under the definition of “transphobia” – which is a form of discrimination. If that was published in another language not Arabic, perhaps the writer would’ve been held accountable. Unfortunately, it seems that “BBC Arabic” is trying very hard to take advantage of the discriminatory laws in our region and the stance of our governments towards the queer community, and therefore had no qualms of conscience about spreading hateful and discriminatory speech
Merely a week (or less) had passed since this headline, that “BBC Arabic” was ready to publish another. This time the discriminatory headline targeted gay people (it’s possible the victims were trans, the media in the region generally doesn’t know the difference, and does not care to), using their official YouTube channel and social media pages. This was after an incident in Mauritania; the Mauritanian police forces arrested a group of people with homosexuality charges due to a widely shared video of the group in a celebration. “BBC Arabic” covered this by sharing a video titled “Mauritania arrests hermaphrodites* in a birthday party in Nouakchott”! I was personally as appalled at this headline as the previous one, but I am truly at a loss as to where to begin with this! I will begin by pointing out the use of the Arabic word “hermaphrodites”, despite it being discriminatory and is also considered a slur used to target and insult members of the queer community!
Secondly, there is a huge mistake in the title, a mistake that only a person completely ignorant of queer issues would commit, or a person with a purposeful agenda to project their prejudice. That mistake is using the Arabic word “hermaphrodites” to describe gay people. If we remove all negative connotations that have been assigned by society from that word, and simply view it as a term from the Arabic dictionary, the meaning would be completely different. In classical Arabic it describes people born with sex characteristics that don’t fit within the sex binary; preferable terms include the Arabic word baine/a el gens (roughly meaning intermediate sex) and the English word intersex. Intersex people aren’t a synonym for gay people and vice versa, and every intersex person has their own gender identity and orientation. Thus, it is completely ignorant to use it as a synonym, especially since these topics are taught to youth in many countries as well as many credible resources being easily accessible on the internet. It is ridiculous for me to explain this to journalists working in one of the biggest media networks in the world
Thirdly, queer people in Mauritania particularly already suffer enough without media incitement. The situation of the victims accused of homosexuality charges is extremely concerning, even more so amidst the silence of relevant organizations locally and globally. Mauritania is one of the most extreme countries when it comes to criminalizing homosexuality with punishments as extreme as death penalty. Furthermore, the people who were arrested are already dealing with tremendous hate from their communities, which are more vocal than ever before. This was exacerbated by the police photographing the victims and spreading their photos on social media with their full names and addresses to inflict the utmost mental anguish for them and their families. As if this wasn’t enough to endure, “BBC Arabic” comes along with a complete lack of professionalism and humanity to publish a video with such a hateful title on their YouTube channel – with over 4 million subscribers. They have completely ignored the precarious situation of these detained people, and the harm that can be caused by a title as hateful as that!!
Finally, what has pushed us to publish this article is the portrayal of “BBC Arabic” (by itself) globally as a neutral news network that publishes content that is free of discrimination and hate speech. We don’t know if our criticism will eventually lead to any beneficial change at all, but what we do know is that journalism is going through a crisis of ignorance and discrimination. A network such as “BBC Arabic” has to accept the fact that they need education on ways to enrich their content that are free from ignorance, discrimination, prejudice and hate. They need to be dedicated in selecting appropriate staff or at the very least to train them professionally before publishing news or sensitive topics that affect marginalized groups. Since discrimination, hate speech and incitement aren’t simple mistake that can be disregarded – on the contrary, they can often be deadly
*In Arabic (modern context), Mukhannathun/een or the rough translation hermaphrodites, is mostly used to insult gay men, feminine/non-conforming men and transgender women/non-binary people. It is also used to insult the queer community as a whole. An English slur equivalent would be faggots or sissies.
Note: we titled this article with the intention of incitement – the same intention of BBC Arabic’s recent headlines.