Challenging political interference in media and stemming the flow of hate from political centres of power is the work of intergovernmental organisations such as the European Union, the Council of Europe and the Organisational for Security and Co-operation in Europe, all of which have developed extensive policies designed to combating hatred and promote free journalism. Policymakers, either the people who prepare and frame policy or those who put it into practice work in a political environment which is often challenging for efforts to make policy effective.
One key policy that underpins much of this work is the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union which provides a legislative and policy framework for governments to both support press freedom and to ban hate speech and discrimination against minorities. This is a worthy and substantial body of work, but often in recent times, it has been called into question as a result of political hate speech by some groups and political leaders who have challenged European consensus in this area, particularly related to migration policy and rights of Muslims.
David Friggieri, former Co-ordinator on Combating anti-Muslim Hatred, Department for Justice, European Commission notes the importance of the EU’s secondary legislation – the Framework Decision on combating racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law – which lays down the type of speech which the European Union considers illegal hate speech.
However, as most editors know very well, “hate speech” is a commonly-used but unfortunately vague concept.
In fact, notes Friggieri, EU legislation does not refer to “hate speech” but to the more legally sounding “intentional public incitement to violence or hatred directed against groups or individual members of that group” based on a number of grounds, namely race, colour, religion, national and ethnic origin.
“This is the EU’s legal red line which is also fully in line with the important case law of the European Court of Human Rights, “ he says. “The Framework Decision is an instrument of criminal law which obliges each member state of the EU to adopt legislation making such incitement a criminal offence.”
The problem, he admits, that although this red line makes it clear the EU’s recognition of the overarching right to freedom of expression, there is a lot of material in the public information space that does not amount to incitement to hatred or violence but which if deeply offensive and creates questions and dilemmas for journalists as well as public bodies.
“What should states do when faced with speech that does not fall under the criminal definition but which, for instance, constantly targets a minority or group of people based on their race or religion,” he asks. It’s a good question and one that constantly troubles editors or journalists trying to avoid anti-Muslim bias.
Friggieri points to other cross-border rules and laws that can be used to stem the flow of hatred, the Audio Visual Media Services Directive, for instance, currently prohibits incitement to hatred based on race, sex, religion or nationality in all TV programmes and video on demand.
The European Commission plans to extend these measures to social networks and video sharing platforms such as YouTube to protect people from incitement to violence or hatred and these can consist of: flagging and reporting mechanisms; age verification systems; systems for rating the content by uploaders or users; parental control mechanisms.
In challenging online sources of hate, the Commission also points to the Code of Conduct agreed by the Commission with some of the major social media companies including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Microsoft which have committed to applying European standards in terms of addressing hate speech when they do business in Europe. Some 18 months after the code was signed social media platform removal rates were up from 28% to 70% and the time of removal is now generally within the 24 hours stipulated by the code.
The EU and other intergovernmental groups are also supporting NGOs and civil society groups working to combat discrimination and hatred, including specialized NGOs like Tell Mama in the UK, CFE in Denmark and ZARA from Austria who are active specifically on countering anti-Muslim hatred.