Speech delivered this morning by Minister for Justice, Culture and Local Government Owen Bonnici during an experts’ conference entitled Counter-Narratives: How to support civil society in delivering effective positive narratives against hate speech online as part of the Maltese Presidency

Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for joining me and on behalf of the Maltese Presidency I would like to welcome you to today’s conference which I’m sure will be very fruitful.

Today, technology is everywhere. We are immersed in it. It has made our life easier in many ways and has also made our lives somewhat more stressful. Emails and messages and mobile technology keep us connected in practice all the time.

Of course, there are very many positives that have come to us through our technological advances. Yes, we are connected to our inboxes through the day, but we are also connected with friends and family, we share memories and thoughts, we congratulate each other on achievements and get the news readily, instantly with the possibility of voicing our opinions easily and pretty much instantaneously.

However, technology does not repeal the human factor. Our cyber opinions and our cyber interactions remain coloured by who we are in our day-to-day. This means, naturally, that what negative traits we witness in our society, we also find online.

Hatred and negativity have existed perhaps, since the very earliest human interactions. Hate speech, one could argue, has always been amongst us. It is however, a well known fact, that hate speech has increased in its intensity and, consequently, also in its impact during the last few years, mainly due to the various technological developments that have shaped our world since the creation of the internet.

Nowadays we are not only speaking of uttered hate speech but also of online hate speech. These technological developments made it easier to spread harm through online means of communication and made the impact of that hate speech wider. Even though the internet made it easier for people to send their messages, some people abuse of this facility. In fact, a recent study commissioned by SOS Malta, showed that 1 out of 3 people interviewed had been a victim of hate speech on social media.

I am a strong believer in the fundamental right of freedom of speech. I believe that each and every one of us has a right to an opinion. But there are red lines. Countless examples have shown us not every opinion is intended to do good. There are those which intentionally damage society.

The current government has striven hard to create a distinction as to what constitutes a mere criticism and actual hate speech. Criticism, even in its harshest and more direct form, is crucial in a democracy. However the incitement of hatred and violence is something altogether different. Discourse should not be aimed at fomenting hatred of others just because they have a different opinion or because to someone’s mind they are different.

All of us have the right to express ourselves but we must all keep in mind that this crucial right of freedom of expression comes with responsibilities.

Last year, we implemented several amendments in the Criminal Code in order to reflect today’s modern society, such as the removal of the act of ‘vilification of religion’ from being a criminal offence, a measure which was welcomed by artists. We have also strengthened the protection towards people who suffer hate speech against them because of their religion.

Does this mean that we have reached our goals? Clearly not. Legislation alone does not solve hate speech issues in society. We must also speak and educate against hate speech.

I say this because this is clearly a responsibility we all have, as much as we have as members of our respective societies. We have responsibilities as members of the wider, global cyber community. All of us.

It was in fact a great pleasure to see last year that the EU issued a Code of Good Conduct for I.T. Companies, which catered for the review and the removal of online comments that intended to instil hatred – motivated mainly by racism, xenophobia and various other forms of intolerance.

This together with the Framework Decision issued by the Council compliments the EU’s mission to combat certain forms and expressions of racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law and national laws transposing it.

However, although the code of good conduct for IT companies is a huge step in the right direction, we still need to continue working to increase the efficiency of this code.

In fact, as resulting from an evaluation by the European Commission, published in December 2016, 28 % of all notifications of alleged illegal online hate speech lead to the removal of the flagged content and only 40 % of all notifications are currently reviewed in under 24 hours.

We need to work together towards increasing these numbers so that victims of hate speech can be truly protected. I read with interest that my colleague Heiko Maas, the German Minister for Justice, has upped his ante on a proposed bill which plans to fine social media firms if they fail to remove hate speech and fake news quickly.

As we all know, online hate speech can take many forms and be directed at many different people. People have been and are targeted on the basis of their race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious beliefs, political beliefs and what have you.

Hate speech has wide reaching effects, which are made even wider as they spread like wild fire through the cyber world. Effects which, as we have seen in many many cases, can result in disastrous consequences in the real world. Words of hate, spoken or typed not only harm their intended victim but can – and often do – also have a negative effect on families and friends, and ultimately even on society at large.

Even if you consider a simple scenario, how many valid people (often young people, but not only) have dismissed serving in high profile positions in various associations and organisations, including politics, because they were put off by the prospect of facing hate speech and abuse? And how much added value and good could these individuals have done to society or to members of those associations? And that good, never materialised, leaving us all the poorer and worst off.

Speaking of online hate speech, we must not forget our youngsters, our minors, our children which, as we are all aware, nowadays are internet savvy from such a young age. Children know how to go online and engage in the online world, it is their world after all. They are the children of the digital age, of social media. However, I certainly do not want to have our children falling victims to online hate speech. I do not want to see any child experiencing or being exposed to online hate speech, or any other kind of hate for that matter.

I want our children to be brought up respecting each other. In fact I take pride in the Ministry and my fellow colleagues in pushing forward discussions on the Proposal on the Audiovisual Media Services Directive which has at its heart the online protection of minors, including protection from online hate speech.

I’ll leave you with one final point, and then leave it to my colleagues to continue with today’s conference.

To achieve great results, I believe it is essential to enact laws that combat online hate speech, but we have to do more. It cannot be just about the law. Laws alone cannot be enough. I think that we can make use of another important and powerful tool to combat hate speech: Education.

It is crucial to teach our children, from a young age, about respect and tolerance. Teach them about the values but also the benefits that come from showing respect and tolerance towards each other, irrespective of our differences. Because we might be different from one another in many ways but we are united in diversity.

Thank you.

Source: Government of Malta