Another 20 people will be charged with publishing online hate speech later this month after a record number of people were arraigned last week.
Times of Malta is informed that the police have identified around two dozen more individuals that published threats and insults, mostly against migrants, on Facebook.
The development comes after the police’s Vice Squad charged a record 20 people with hate speech on Friday after they posted inflammatory comments on Facebook.
The comments were posted under a video depicting a man who had been assaulted by a gang of foreign nationals.
The victim, 69-year-old pensioner Emmanuel Zammit, was last year stopped by three men who asked him for a cigarette. After replying that he did not smoke, he was held down, beaten and robbed, with the thieves making off with his phone and wallet, which only contained €40.
A video featuring Zammit just minutes later was uploaded to Facebook, after he was found by bystanders. The video, which said Zammit had been attacked by a group of migrants, had prompted a startling array of insults towards his aggressors.
The accused all pleaded guilty and were handed suspended sentences and fines ranging from €150 to €500.
According to Maltese law, hate speech is a threat or insult directed at a member of a recognised minority group.
More specifically, it is classified as posting hurtful or threatening remarks meant to attack a person on the basis of race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, gender or disability. It is punishable by up to 18 months in prison, along with hefty fines stretching into thousands of euros.
A year-long campaign steered by SOS Malta, in conjunction with Times of Malta, in 2019 had revealed the extent of the problem of hate crime in Malta, especially on social media.
The campaign had established that, not only was social media rife with hate speech, but reporting by victims remains an issue.
While migrants are often the main target of hate crimes, the police insist they are among the least likely to file a report.
Police depend on public's help
Police sources working on investigating hate speech crimes told Times of Malta that they depend on the public’s help.
“We cannot police Facebook or be aware of every comment being posted. So, we need the public’s help to identify these incidents,” a police inspector said.
The sources added that once police receive a complaint or report they don’t stop there and if other instances of hate speech are identified, investigations continue.
This was the case in the upcoming batch of arraignments. While police had received a few reports of hate speech, the police had then found other comments by other Facebook users that also required action.
The problem, the inspector said, is that many don’t realise the severity of their action.
“It’s easy to just write something on Facebook and then forget about it. What I ask these people we bring in is, would you have said that to the person’s face – at this point they normally realise what they’ve done wrong,” the source said.
In October 2019, a dedicated Hate Crime and Hate Speech unit was set up to provide legal and psychological support for victims. Since opening, nearly 300 reports have been filed with the unit.