Anti-hate-speech initiative spreading to the Balkans

05/04/2013

The Council of Europe's new programme seeks to raise youths' awareness of online hate speech.

By Biljana Lajmanovska for Southeast European Times in Skopje -- 05/04/13

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A new initiative by the Council of Europe will promote youth awareness of online hate speech. [AFP]

Young people ages 13 to 30 are the target of the Council of Europe's No Hate Speech Movement, a new campaign seeking to raise awareness of online hate speech and its threat to democracy.

The project also will map hate speech on the internet and develop tools to help young people offer constructive responses and stand up for human rights.

In Macedonia, the national Agency for Sports and Youth will co-ordinate activities during the next year under the motto "Young people for human rights on internet." Macedonia plans to create a national committee for prevention of online hate speech that will include both governmental institutions and NGOs.

"The goal of the campaign is not to limit the freedom of expression online. These are activities that will help us to eliminate the hate speech on the internet, which sadly is becoming more and more present today, especially among the young population that sometimes misuses internet and social networks," Lazar Popovski, director of the Agency for Sports and Youth, told SETimes.

Hate speech is banned by law in Macedonia, but authorities have problems controlling it online. Social network users with anonymous profiles organised violent protests last month in Skopje. The police closed dozens of Facebook profiles of groups calling for violence.

Elena Mihajlovska, a professor at the Faculty of Law in Skopje, told SETimes that international hate speech standards are strict, but she added that more resolute action is needed to prevent this crime.

"We have the necessary laws, but we lack the legal practice," Mihajlovska said. "What we need is more dynamic activity of the Commission for Prevention of Discrimination and more intense court activity when solving these types of questions."

Mihajlovska said the courts and the commission sometimes do not evaluate online hate speech as a criminal act because it can be difficult to find evidence.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), the Youth Association Motus Adulescenti from eastern Sarajevo plans to establish national committees to train young people and raise public awareness. They also want to launch an initiative to create a legal framework that will directly address hate speech on the internet.

"In BiH we have a law in which hate speech is treated as a criminal offense punishable with a prison sentence of three months to 10 years. However, there is no specific mention of hate speech on the internet," Aleksandra Matic, program co-ordinator from Association Motus Adulescenti, told SETimes.

In a recent poll by Association Motus Adulescenti, 30 percent of young people stated they have been victims of hate speech on the internet and 90 percent said they know someone who has been the victim of it. Ten percent said they had used a false name to engage in hate speech on the internet.

"It is easier for someone to send you ugly messages in this indirect way without face-to-face contact," Lejla Hodžić, a student from Sarajevo, told SETimes.

A recent incident in Romania caused an outburst of online hate speech. Sabina Elena, a Romanian teenager who attends a Hungarian school, wore a headband with the colors of the Romanian flag on March 15th, Hungary's National Day. The event touched off a series of revanchist speeches between young people of Magyar and Romanian origin.

"I believe it is very important to understand where the freedom of speech ends and where hate speech begins," Irina Nita, programme co-ordinator of Romanian NGO Accept, told SETimes. "We find on the Romanian internet a lot of reactions that insult, humiliate, and promote violence or discrimination, all these are examples of hate speech. The campaign initiated by the Council of Europe sends exactly that message: We cannot remain indifferent in face of hate bluntly expressed against discriminated groups. Each of us can and must react."

Hate speech on the internet is not defined as an offence in Albania's penal code. Daniela Bonollari, editor in chief of Balkanweb, the largest Albanian news website, said her staff struggles to filter readers' messages.

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"We check all comments and opinions of the readers or bloggers through a monitoring system. In the beginning we allowed all readers to freely comment but after only two days of trial, we observed that most of the comments were insults and even threats. Today the panel where we work for news editing at Balkanweb has a very sophisticated system that controls all readers' messages," Bonollari told SETimes.

This year, Croatia became one of the few countries in the region with specific legal provisions for online hate speech. Croatian law previously regulated libel and defamation expressed privately, in public or in the media, but now explicitly mentions the internet. Publication of hate speech via the internet is punishable by jail sentences of up to three years.

Correspondents Kruno Kartus in Zagreb, Ana Lovakovic in Sarajevo, Erl Murati in Tirana and Gabriel Petrescu in Bucharest contributed to this article.

What actions should be taken to curb hate crime on the internet? Tell us what you think in the comments.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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