Hate speech limits freedom of expression

Verbal violence – often in the form of ‘ad hominem’ attacks on people with differing views – has, in fact, long characterised the tone of national discussion on a wide variety of topics

Hate speech is not a new phenomenon in Malta: nor is it limited to issues of race or nationality.

Significant portions of what passes for ‘public debate’ here would qualify as ‘hate speech’, according to the United Nations’ definition: “any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality race, colour, descent, gender or other identity factor.”

Verbal violence – often in the form of ‘ad hominem’ attacks on people with differing views – has, in fact, long characterised the tone of national discussion on a wide variety of topics.

Nonetheless, there is evidence that the problem is worsening. Before last June’s MEP elections, at least death threats were reported. More recently, a protest calling for access to safe abortion likewise elicited open death threats aimed at the young women involved.

The more recent Hal Far riots, where a police car and three other open centre employee cars were set alight, were immediately followed by a spate of unrestrained comments on social media that threatened violence towards the migrant community.

This latter incident has also exposed the sheer extent of the problem: for the calls for violence were this time far more numerous, and – more worryingly still – seem to have elicited a strong show of support from others.

But in a broader context, the threat of hate speech is more insidious still. By its very nature, it also aims at stifling the free speech of others. Death threats have a chilling effect, in that they create an atmosphere of fear and loathing that makes it difficult for any discussion to take place at all.

When people say that they are being ‘patriotic’, or claim they are defending Malta to contest “anti-racism” opposition, what they are unapologetically saying is that they don't want others to have the same democratic presence they enjoy themselves.

Quite simply, they are saying that they don’t want others to have free speech. But free speech is there for the benefit of everybody, not just the few. Denying it to others constitutes a defiance of the very human rights that guarantees all our basic freedoms – including the right to life.

So in this case, toleration cannot be a solution to intolerance. We need to be brave enough to call out racism and hate speech, because there are differences between what is ‘wrong’ and what is ‘intolerably wrong’.

This points towards a seemingly widespread misconception: freedom of speech does not mean the freedom to say anything at all, without facing any form of consequence. The stark truth is that… yes, there are some views that a free, democratic society can’t tolerate.

Racism is one of those ‘intolerably wrong’ things, because it denies some people human equality on entirely arbitrary grounds. It creates a hierarchy of human worth, and causes serious harm to its targets. Racism, or speech that incites hatred and violence, or which targets people according to their social or ethnic group, is illegal, and should be prosecuted instantly.

But our reaction to hate speech has so far been the opposite. Trawling the Facebook pages of Maltese far-right groups, but also newspaper comments, it is clear enough that refugees and foreigners are not popular. But the already pointed incivility is only made worse by a shared understanding that being nasty on social media is seemingly acceptable.

It is this attitude that must be countered through such initiatives as the Hate Speech and Crime Unit, inaugurated in Valletta earlies this week.

The government may not wish to create a ‘witch-hunt’, for it could be lumbered with the unenviable task of prosecuting hundreds if not thousands of commenters; but it should know that much of this commentary is intended at inciting animosity and hatred against target groups, to intentionally inflict emotional distress, and – in worst-case scenarios – to threaten or incite violence.

These commenters defame entire groups, and use slurs and insults to silence opponents. With such a nativist, proto-fascist, often male-dominated response to any sort of news relating to refugees and migration, the case for politically-led integration and stronger rhetoric against racism has grown exponentially.

Deciding where to draw the line between internet hate and free speech is something that requires constant vigilance.

Definitely, we need to empower people to take up effective counter-speech initiatives in the battle against hate. For example: recently, the Maltese football coach and social worker Omar Rababah livestreamed his response to the racist and xenophobic commentary about a multi-ethnic team called Syria Gzira FC.

However, presenting counter-arguments that delegitimise hateful ideologies also needs support, and people cannot be left alone to counter the wave of online hatred. It needs a coalition of willing people, in the form of an anti-defamation league, that can develop tools and educational resources, including training sessions for bloggers, journalists and activists, to educate people of all ages and apply critical skills to counteract online hate.

For counteract we must. There has already been one racially motivated murder in Malta; and that is one too many.