The Malta Independent 5 December 2021, Sunday

The opponent

Owen Bonnici Friday, 19 November 2021, 06:22 Last update: about 15 days ago

Hate is the opponent of equality.  And since it is the direct opponent of equality, we are determined to continue combating and preventing hate speech.

Hate speech poses grave dangers for the cohesion of a democratic society. If left unaddressed, it can lead to hate crime.

We undoubtedly can all appreciate that language and speech, understood broadly, are pillars of human interconnectedness. 

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Thanks to communication, human beings have for millennia forged bonds of love, meaning, culture, learning, and so much more.

At different stages of history, technology has impacted prior modalities of communication, creating new opportunities and new challenges.

And here we are, in this generation and tomorrow’s, facing unprecedented opportunity to break down walls and borders thanks to the fruits of technological research and innovation. Everyone carries, in his pocket, one or more pieces of technology that allow us to reach out beyond walls, beyond national frontiers, to communicate, to update ourselves, to work, and a million other things.

Sadly, however, technology is also a vehicle for the demon of hate.  I would not like to give the impression that hate speech is only limited to the online universe, but the truth is that from early on, white supremacists and fundamentalists and all sorts of mainstream and fringe groups peddling ideologies denying the equality of all, have capitalized on the easy and cheap access to technology. We see this across all the grounds of discrimination.

Social media enhances such messaging, but within the immense volume of information in cyberspace one also finds innocent-looking distortions of important tenets of science and history, to name a few. I recall, for example, the “white replacement” theory, born in academia, but which is nothing more than a racist conspiracy theory which has gone mainstream.

Throughout my Cabinet career, I have worked hard, along with my colleagues, in order to push forward reforms in order to strengthen freedom of speech.  

Back in 2016, I had pushed wholesome reforms in Parliament which drastically increased artistic freedom, and essentially threw artistic censorship by the State, in all its forms, out of the window.  At the time the Opposition had called these efforts a waste of time (“ksuħat”).

I have also overseen the approval of a new Media and Defamation Act back in 2018, which has indeed implemented far-reaching changes, including the striking off once and for all of criminal libel from our statute books.  These reforms, I believe, have changed Malta for the better.

However, we have always drawn a line to where freedom of speech ends: and that is hate speech.  

As a person who I greatly respect had once said, those who make use of words to instigate people against each other, by muck-raking and insulting and humiliating each other, create an environment that does not beget either unity or peace, that does not give justice.  Truly, speech should never be used as a means of destruction, jealousy and hatred.

Malta is not immune to hate speech. 

We have our own home-bred narratives, sources, and incitement. 

From time to time, we experience peaks of speech that comes close to, or exceed the minimum required to be classified as hate speech, but to effectively prevent it we cannot only react to the extremes.  

Our prevention efforts should be rooted in educating minors and adults alike, in an age-appropriate fashion, to healthy democratic debate, including disagreement, on all issues linked to the grounds where discrimination happens, whether racial, sexual orientation, disability, belief, gender, and so on, including where these grounds intersect and cause, as it were, an aggravation of the discrimination because of the burden of being discriminated against in multiple ways.

And, besides education in healthy democratic debate, on issues such as immigration and integration, value-based technological literacy. There is no turning back on technology. Nostalgia is a no-go. What is needed is respect for equality and human rights in the use of technology; where needed this respect needs to be supported by legislation.

The legislation is there to show that there is a line that cannot be crossed from democratic debate into hate. Plain and simple, it is illegal. Criminal prohibition is necessary when hate speech publicly incites violence against individuals or groups of people.  

Our Criminal Code, which we have repeatedly updated and strengthened in the part relating to hate crimes, is an effective instrument to address the prosecution of “whoever uses any threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviours, or displays any written or printed material which is threatening, abusive or insulting, or otherwise conducts himself in such a manner, with intent thereby to stir up violence or racial or religion hatred against another person or group on the grounds of gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, colour, language, ethnic origin, religion or belief or political or other opinion or whereby such violence or racial or religion hatred is likely, having regard to all the circumstances, to be stirred up shall on conviction be liable to imprisonment for a term from six to eighteen months.”

At the same time we have to keep in mind that criminal sanctions should be used as a measure of last resort and, all along, a balance must be kept between fighting hate speech on the one hand, and safeguarding freedom of speech on the other. 

The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance within the Council of Europe, for instance, pushes forward the point that restrictions on hate speech should not be misused to silence minorities and to suppress criticism of official policies, political opposition or religious beliefs.

In many instances, ECRI has found that an effective approach to tackling hate speech, in particular cyberhate, is self-regulation by public and private institutions, media and the Internet industry, such as the adoption of codes of conduct accompanied by sanctions for non-compliance. Education and counter-speech are also equally important in fighting the misconceptions and misinformation that form the basis of hate speech. Therefore, ECRI considers that effective action against the use of hate speech requires raising public awareness of the importance of respecting pluralism and of the dangers posed by hate speech.

Under-reporting of hate speech and hate-motivated violence is another unfortunate feature of these two phenomena. Victims rarely report incidents to the authorities for fear of retaliation or of not being taken seriously, or because they have no confidence in the justice system. This contributes to lack data which makes it difficult to quantify the extent of the problem and take effective measures to address it.

We have to provide practical support to those targeted by hate speech and violence: victims should be made aware of their rights to redress through administrative, civil and criminal proceedings and encouraged to report to the authorities, and receive legal and psychological assistance.

Our aspiration for Maltese society is that we should be a society characterized by equality. In one field after the other, over the past eight years we have walked the talk, and today look at economic success and equality for all as two sides of the same coin.

Just some weeks ago I launched Malta’s first Anti-Racism Strategy, marked by a structural and intersectional approach to racism. And because of this approach, the approach of not addressing inequalities in silos, this Strategy is relevant to more than just racism. Indeed, the Strategy is criss-crossed with measures relevant to combating and preventing hate speech across the board, such as tackling the under reporting of discrimination and the collection of data, building on the good work done by the equality bodies and the Victim Support Agency.

Yes, there is a specific anti-racism focus at the surface of the measures, obviously, but the organic work of the Human Rights Directorate ensures that in some way multiple grounds of discrimination are being addressed.

This is the work of all of us. All our strategies and action plans in the field of equality and human rights make this clear. I never tire of saying that our doors are open to victims, to civil society, academics, social partners, and others, to work together to shape new narratives that resonate with citizens, with the grassroots. It is them, the specialists in day-to-day living to whom we need to get out the message that Maltese society is built on equality, not on hate.

Antonio Guterres, the UN's Secretary General, is spot on in saying as follows:

Hatred is a danger to everyone – and so fighting it must be a job for everyone.  Together, we can put out the wildfire of hate and uphold the values that bind us together as a single human family. 

 

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