‘Hate speech’ is an irreducibly complex and contested idea, weighted against competing rights in different ways in different legal traditions and jurisdictions; dependent on different understandings of speech and its potential consequences; framed by varying and conflicting assessments as to what constitutes ‘hate’; linked to particular identities that are the subjects of speech, as well as to particular speakers and ‘viewpoints’; and politically deployed as a strategy in a variety of ways, many of them deeply contradictory. (Gavan Titley, 2012)
In Europe’s culturally diverse societies there is a need to reconcile the right to freedom of expression with other rights, such as freedom of thought, conscience or religion, which might sometimes compete with each other. It is a difficult challenge because these rights are at the core of democracy and the rights of all citizens to participate and make their views known in the public space.
Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression”, including the “freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers”. However, the Convention also provides that the exercise of these freedoms carries with it duties and responsibilities, and establishes that some restrictions to this right, including “the protection of the reputation or rights of others”, may in certain circumstances be possible.
The European Court of Human Rights often points out that freedom of expression is also applicable to information or ideas “that offend, shock or disturb the state or any sector of the population because such are the demands of pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no democratic society.”
Freedom of expression goes hand in hand with the demand of a democratic society. It is a necessary condition for the enjoyment of our democratic ideals, providing space for public discussion and debate. It is therefore fundamental to an enabling environment for organised civil society’s role in a democracy – promoting the public good and holding government and other powerful stakeholders to account. There are now more ways to spread more ideas to more people than at any moment in history.
However, this freedom of expression cannot be unlimited. The dark side of the internet cannot be ignored and public expression of views has consequences.
Hate crimes are on the increase in Europe. Threats, intimidations and violence against persons singled out for persecution on the grounds of ethnicity, religious belief, gender, disability or sexual orientation continue in Europe, in spite of the avowed commitments to democracy and tolerance of European institutions. Two reports released by the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) in November 2012 highlight that every fourth person in Europe has been a victim of some kind of hate crime, with persons of Sub-Saharan African descent and Roma people suffering the highest levels of abuse. The economic crisis has seemingly compounded these attacks on the weak, the marginalised and visible minorities.
While acknowledging the increase of hate crime, there is still some debate about how to proceed in tackling the phenomenon, including hate speech. With the increased use of the internet and social media sites by radical groups, hate speech is being perpetuated online, leading to the sinister proposition of hate “moving from cyberspace to the physical world”, as Jeno Kaltenbach, Chair of the Council of Europe’s Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), put it.
The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers’ Recommendation 97(20) on “hate speech” defines it as follows: “the term ‘hate speech’ shall be understood as covering all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or other forms of hatred based on intolerance, including: intolerance expressed by aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism, discrimination and hostility against minorities, migrants and people of immigrant origin,” placing the discussion on hate speech and its regulation in the framework of anti-racist and anti-discrimination work conducted by the institution (CoE).
Hate speech as such is not a new issue in the human rights debate; but the potential impacts of its online dimension give new reasons for concern among young people and youth organisations. Hate speech is easier to monitor and counter in mainstream, professional media; the challenge posed by its online manifestation is the difficulty of monitoring and measuring its extent and impact. The activity of static websites can be easily traced. But most of the action is happening in encounter spaces on social networking sites, which are far harder to monitor and analyse.