In May 2013, a campaign led notably by Women, Action and the Media and the Everyday Sexism Project attracted global public attention to the issue of social media content promoting violence against women. Such content included the photograph of a well-known singer with a bloodied and beaten face with a caption celebrating her boyfriend’s assault. The campaign prompted Facebook to react and update its policies on hate speech, which now take better account of an often neglected type of hate speech, that targeting women.
Such hate speech is proliferating, notably on the Internet, with daily calls for violence against women and threats of murder, sexual assault or rape.
Arguably, the most famous case is that of Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who, after surviving an assassination attempt prompted by her stance for women’s rights, had to withstand a hostile campaign on the Internet. Malala is now a symbol of women’s struggle worldwide, including in Europe. Recent cases, in fact, remind us that if we believe that hate speech against women is not a European problem, we are profoundly wrong.
A few days ago, for example, an investigation was opened in the UK against two police officers who used denigrating language against a 19-year old woman who intended to lodge a complaint for domestic violence.
In Italy, the speaker of Parliament, Laura Boldrini, has been the target of repeated hate speech since she was sworn in, including recently when the leader of the 5-Star Movement, a political group which obtained a quarter of the votes in last year’s legislative elections, published a clearly misogynistic post on his blog, which was picked up by his social media account and those used by his MPs, and which generated violent, insulting comments against her.
Numerous are also the cases of female journalists all over Europe who have been the target of explicit gender-based threats. Many of them felt obliged to leave the blogosphere.
These are just few examples of a much broader, underestimated phenomenon that needs to be urgently tackled.
Provisions against hate speech in international human rights law usually cover grounds related to racial, ethnic and religious hatred, as is the case in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
At European level, hate speech, as defined by the Council of Europe, covers 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. Although the definition refers to a number of groups which are frequently seen to be the targets of hate speech, the list should be read as open-ended, and not limiting the possible targets to these groups alone.
This was made clear in 2011 when the Council of Europe opened for signature the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (the Istanbul Convention) which binds state parties to prohibit sexual harassment, including “verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature unwanted by the victim.” The Convention also highlights the participation of the private sector and the media and establishes the obligation of state parties to find ways to encourage private companies and the media to set themselves self-regulatory standards for example to limit any form of verbal or physical abuse of women. This would include hate speech on the grounds of gender, as well as any incitement to violence against women. The obligation on the government here is to set incentives or otherwise encourage the private sector actors to do whatever they can to make sure none of their products, services or advertisements exhibit misogynistic tendencies or gives them a platform to develop.
Three years after its opening for signature, the Istanbul Convention has been ratified by only eight member states (Albania, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Italy, Montenegro, Portugal, Serbia and Turkey), an insufficient number to have it enter into force.
An additional standard are guidelines adopted in 2013 by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on gender equality and media. They specifically recommend that “unless already in place, member states should adopt an appropriate legal framework intended to ensure that there is respect for the principle of human dignity and the prohibition of all discrimination on grounds of sex, as well as of incitement to hatred and to any form of gender-based violence within the media.”
A first step member states should take is to ratify the Istanbul Convention and use its provisions to better frame the work of national and local authorities, including police and health officials, around four key principles of the fight against violence: prevention, protection, prosecution and integrated policies.
In addition, member states should also prohibit by law any advocacy of gender hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, as foreseen by the ICCPR for other grounds.
Another tool at their disposal is the Council of Europe campaign “No Hate Speech Movement” which provides means to raise awareness about this problem and help fight back, including through its report page where hate content is monitored and collected by internet users. Member states should participate in and implement this campaign as part of their efforts to tackle hate speech.
Several other measures can be taken. For example, both traditional and online media could better engage in exposing and marginalising sexist discourse.
In reaction to the abovementioned campaign, Facebook promised to review its guidelines, improve the training of its moderators, establish more formal and direct lines of communication with advocacy groups and increase the accountability of the creators of content which is cruel or insensitive but does not qualify as hate speech. Education is another field where action can be taken. In his 2012 Report focusing on hate speech, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue observed that the first critical step was “to address and redress the indirect censorship, powerlessness and/or alienation felt by many groups and individuals. For example, in many countries, women or women’s groups that publicly criticize discriminatory religious tenets have frequently been the targets of severe harassment and intimidation, both by the State and by non-State actors. (…) By allowing voices that have been marginalized and perspectives that generally find little expression to come to the fore, such initiatives play a vital role in fostering debate and greater understanding in society.”
A clear signal
Freedom of expression is a fundamental right which must be protected, but it is not an absolute right. There are limits which apply, in particular with regard to hate speech.
Hate speech against women is a long-standing, though underreported problem in Europe that member states have the duty to fight more resolutely.
It is necessary that legal and political tools be in place to firmly condemn it and prosecute the perpetrators. As the world celebrates International Women’s Day on March 8, political and opinion leaders in Europe should send a signal to the public which clearly shows that violent discourse against women has no place in a democratic society and will not be tolerated.