Preventing hate speech and violence online
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Dear President, Dear Deputies,
Allow me to express my appreciation and admiration for your initiative to take up one of today's burning issues - the loss of civility and mutual respect that is poisoning our communication environment.
We are talking today about hate speech on the Internet.
Addressing hate speech, particularly as a politician, requires some courage and bravery because the consequence may be that we expose ourselves to even more hate speech.
But we need to respond to a situation that is harmful for our political culture, dangerous for many citizens, and unbearable to those who are the immediate victims.
Every form of hate speech is a form of violence. The Council of Europe has voiced its concerns since the 1990s, when it became more and more apparent that hate speech is a powerful political weapon which can be a direct threat for peace, human rights and social cohesion. In 1997, our Committee of Ministers recommended therefore that member States combat hate speech through a comprehensive approach, based on a sound legal framework in civil, criminal and administrative law, but also addressing the social and political root causes of hate.
Today, almost twenty years later, hate speech has not gone away. On the contrary, hate speech has found its way to the Internet and social media which provide an ideal vehicle and environment for hate speech to prosper. The anonymity and visibility provided by the Internet can almost be an invitation to offend, to stigmatize, and to cause harm. Today anyone can be a target, because of one's race or colour, religious belief, nationality or sexual orientation, or even because of physical appearance or opinion. Girls and women, it seems, are particularly often the victims of the most violent hate speech.
It is not easy to find an answer to this. Freedom of expression is a cornerstone of our democratic culture and human rights also apply in cyberspace. The free exchange of ideas and beliefs, the possibility for debating publicly without fear, are the lifeblood of democracy.
Freedom of expression is not unconditional, because it carries with it certain duties and responsibilities. But to restrain freedom of expression is a serious interference. The extensive case-law of the European Court of Human Rights on this matter shows how delicate the balance between the freedom of expression and hate speech is, and how closely we have to look at the exact circumstances of the communication situation, the contents of the message, and the position of the speaker.
There is a strong political logic that, in addition to legal standards and sanctions, substantial efforts are made to ensure preventative measures, to educate, inform and counteract hate speech.
The "No Hate Speech" youth campaign, which the Council of Europe launched on the occasion of International Day against Racism and Discrimination, is possibly the most interesting initiative at European level in this area. The campaign ideas were developed by young people and youth organisations themselves, who co-operate closely and regularly with the Council of Europe. Young people are possibly most aware of the rampant hate speech on the Internet - because of their affinity to social media, their media literacy and savvyness, and because of the amount of time they spend in cyberspace. They are also often the most vulnerable victims. It is therefore no surprise then that young people themselves decided to tackle the problem.
This "No Hate Speech Movement" is not a campaign against freedom of expression. It is not a campaign against social media. It is a campaign for human dignity. It is a campaign for the victims and for their human rights.
The campaign is already organised in 34 member States of the Council of Europe, and the number is also growing beyond Europe — Mexico being the most recent interested partner.
I am proud, as an Italian, that my country is one of the first to launch the campaign officially, and with such a high-level event.
At European level, the Council of Europe has established a platform, accessible to all young people who want to be actively involved. Its address is www.nohatespeechmovement.org: We are also running training courses for online activists and bloggers, to mobilise them and to pass on their knowledge to other young people. We are organising workshops and seminars for campaign activists and organisers, and study sessions with various youth NGOs to share best practice and to explore particular aspects of hate speech.
After the summer we will place particular emphasis on bringing the campaign to school environments. The combination of hate speech and bullying is particularly worrying in schools. This work is also part of the wider drive for promoting "net citizenship" and media literacy. Nowadays, education for democratic citizenship and human rights has to include the Internet.
At national level the campaigns must be supported by public authorities and non-governmental partners; they must however be firmly based on the voluntary engagement of young activists. Only by involving young people can we ensure that the campaign is not seen as a top-down activity, driven by adults and institutions wishing to control young people. The campaign ownership by young people is absolutely essential. This is what makes the "No Hate Speech Movement" so important: it represents a move towards self-regulation, self-monitoring and positive peer-pressure by the users themselves.
The first conclusions from the campaigns at national level are very encouraging. They show how important it is to take into account the experience of the victims of hate speech and to provide young people with information on where they can find support and advice. Experience also shows that it is not possible to campaign for human rights online, and neglect discrimination offline. Partnerships with media and private businesses, including Internet service providers, are important.
I would like to salute the decision of the Minister of Equal Opportunities, Sports and Youth Policies to invite the Ministry of Education to prepare the campaign in Italy.
The Council of Europe will stand behind your work. And when the time comes to evaluate your achievements we look forward to hearing about the results of your action. As politicians we will then have the task of translating the experiences of the campaign into policy measures, using the campaign results for the innovative governance of the Internet and the protection of human rights online.
For those young people and others who are following this debate through the live stream, I hope that you will also be inspired to play your role as active citizens. You are the generation of the net - and you can also be its guardians.
Thank you for your attention.
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