Nota Bene : At the request of the European Parliament LIBE committee, this study provides an overview of the legal framework applicable to hate speech and hate crime on the one hand and to blasphemy and religious insult on the other hand. It also evaluates the effectiveness of existing legislation in selected Member States and explores opportunities to strengthen the current EU legal framework, whilst fully respecting the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The study also provides the European Parliament with guidelines on dealing with hate speech within the EU institutions. Link to the full study (446 pages) AUTHORS (*)
Hate speech and hate crime incidents, including those committed online, are on the rise in Europe1, despite the existence of a robust legal framework. This study provides an overview of the legal framework applicable to hate speech and hate crime, as well as to blasphemy and religious insult. It also evaluates the effectiveness of existing legislation in selected Member States and explores opportunities to strengthen the current EU legal framework, whilst fully respecting the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The study also provides the European Parliament with guidelines on dealing with hate speech within the EU institutions.
Legal framework on hate speech and hate crime
At the EU level the legal framework includes inter alia: Council Framework Decision 2008/913/JHA (CFD)2 (requiring Member States to penalise the most severe forms of hate speech and hate crime); and the Audiovisual Media Services (AMSD)3 and Electronic Commerce Directives (ECD)4 (controlling racist and xenophobic behaviours in the media and over the internet). It is important to view the EU measures aimed at addressing racism and xenophobia in the context of the broader EU legislative framework. Instruments aimed at supporting victims of crime and antidiscrimination measures are of particular relevance in this respect. These include Directive 2012/29/EU5 (Victims’ Support Directive) and the EU’s equality and anti-discrimination legislation (e.g. Directive 2000/43/EC6 (the Racial Equality Directive)). The Racial Equality Directive is complemented by other antidiscrimination legislative instruments such as Directive 2000/78/EC7 (the Employment Equality Directive) and Directives 2004/113/EC and 2006/54/EC8 (the Equal Treatment Directives). The EU also provides its support in practice by financing projects aimed inter alia at fighting hate speech and hate crime (for example under the Europe for Citizens Programme 2014-20209 or the Rights, Equality and Citizenship Programme 2014-202010).
The current study, developed on the basis of information gathered through seven national studies (Belgium, Germany, Greece, France, Hungary, the Netherlands and Sweden), has revealed some major drawbacks of the current legal framework applicable to hate speech and hate crime:
Shortcomings related to the transposition of the CFD include its incomplete transposition. Gaps in transposition mainly arise in connection with Article 1(1)(c) and 1(1)(d) of the CFD requiring the penalisation of the condoning, denial or gross trivialisation of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes and of Nazi crimes, respectively. To ensure effective protection against the most severe forms of hate speech and hate crime, it is recommended that the European Commission (EC) initiates infringement proceedings against Member States failing to transpose the CFD. Another issue derives from the transposition of the protected characteristics (grounds upon which hate speech and hate crime are prohibited) set out in the CFD, the AMSD and the ECD. As a general rule, Member States’ legislation refers to characteristics beyond those required by the CFD, the AMSD and the ECD. Member States have not taken a harmonised approach in this respect, thus the list of protected characteristics varies from Member State to Member State. Therefore an ambitious review of existing EU law might be necessary.
The use in practice of the CFD, the AMSD and the ECD is hindered by similar factors. Member States fail to collect sufficient reliable data on hate speech and hate crime incidents, which hinders the monitoring and assessment of the scale of the problem. This mainly results from the fact that data collection related competences are often divided between more than one authority, whose data collection efforts are not harmonised. To overcome the existing data gap, Member States with less developed or harmonised data collection methods could be encouraged to learn from Member States with good practices in place. The underreporting of hate speech and hate crime incidents by victims also hinders the understanding of the scale of the problem. Member States could be encouraged to raise awareness of the means of reporting incidents or to facilitate reporting through alternative means, such as anonymously, through the internet or victim support organisations.
The absence of shared understanding by practitioners of the applicable legal provisions seems to be an issue across the globe. The provision of clear guidance to practitioners, for example through awareness raising materials or training programmes, is therefore needed. These tools should provide practitioners with the skills necessary to duly investigate, prosecute and adjudicate hate speech and hate crime incidents.
In addition, applicable rules often fail to cover the liability of operators for the publication of hate content by bloggers or users of social media sites. The liability of bloggers and users of websites is often regulated; however these individuals are sometimes difficult to trace back, moreover it is often difficult to prove their motivation. The situation is an issue of concern given that internet remains a critical tool for the distribution of racist and hateful propaganda. To overcome the potential impunity of offenders it is recommended to regulate the liability of operators, thereby encouraging them to better control the content of blogs and social media websites. Alternatively Member States could reinforce their efforts of monitoring the content of websites. This however, should be done in a manner ensuring the sufficient respect of freedom of expression.
In most Member States, no concerns have arisen regarding the unnecessary limitation of freedom of expression by hate speech legislation, or vice versa. France constitutes an exception in this respect where debates over the borderline between the protection of human dignity and the freedom of expression have recently reignited, when the French Government announced its new campaign against online hate speech. Some considered the French measures as too restrictive of the freedom of expression11. Guidance on where the borderline stands between the two fundamental rights is found in the case law of the European Courts of Human Rights (ECtHR). The ECtHR has ruled that in a democratic society, which is based on pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness, freedom of expression should be seen as a right extending also to information and ideas that might offend, shock or disturb others. Any limitation of the freedom of expression must be proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued12. Member States could also be encouraged to sign and ratify the Council of Europe’s (CoE) Additional Protocol to the Convention of Cybercrime13, which gives due consideration to freedom of expression, while requiring the criminalisation of racist and xenophobic acts committed online.
Finally, the absence of one comprehensive policy dealing with hate speech and hate crime is itself a matter that should be addressed. This could be addressed through the adoption of a comprehensive strategy for fighting hate speech and hate crime. The Strategy could define concrete policy goals for the Member States, targeting the most severe forms of hate speech and hate crime, including online crime. These policy goals could be set in light of the most important factors hindering the application of hate speech and hate crime legislation in practice. These factors, as explained in details above, include inter alia the insufficient transposition of applicable rules, the inadequate knowledge of practitioners of the rules applicable to hate speech and hate crime, the insufficient data collection mechanisms in place and the existence of severe underreporting. The Strategy should ensure the sufficient respect of freedom of expression and acknowledge that hate speech and hate crime are present in all areas of life (e.g. politics, media, employment).
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