President George Vella urged politicians, journalists and social influencers to avoid hate speech whether online or offline.

Addressing a conference called Hate Speech: Challenged in Schools, Vella said hate speech concerned him “quite a bit”.

“I urge politicians, journalists, social influencers, employers and people of prominence to always consider their words and actions,” he said.

“In particular I urge you to avoid this type of language when it comes to politics.”

Vella's comments come hours after fiery exchanges in parliament, as the house deliberated on the PN's motion to condemn the hospitals' deal struck down by a court last month. The debate was characterised by heated exchanges and accusations. 

Speaker Anglu Farrugia was forced to suspend the sitting after Prime Minister Robert Abela accused PN MP Adrian Delia of lying to the courts. 

On Thursday evening, the Institute of Maltese journalists meanwhile noted that the level of respect towards journalists was continuing its downward trend as authorities and politicians continued to "denigrate the sector with certain comments targeting journalists".

The IĠM addressed the issue in a statement condemning "despicable acts' outside parliament, urging the police to investigate a man who spat at ONE journalists.

President Vella himself had called on Abela and Grech to stop a politically motivated hate speech in 2021.

On Friday he warned that unity could not be built on fighting, teasing, disrespect and threatening words. This brings division, exclusion, and disgust. Hate should never win over mutual respect.”

According to Maltese law, hate speech is a threat or insult directed at a member of a recognised minority group. It is punishable by up to 18 months in prison, along with hefty fines stretching into thousands of euros.

Specifically, hate speech is classified as harmful or threatening remarks to attack a person on the basis of race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, gender, or disability. 

Hate speech is a predominant issue locally. According to a Eurobarometer survey in 2018, Maltese people were the most likely of all EU nationals to come across hate speech online.

Between 2019 and 2021, the majority of hate crime reports filed with police were of a racial and political nature.

'Children do not discriminate on colour, race or gender'

Vella added that while people disagreed between them, respect should still be shown towards Maltese, Gozitans and foreigners who lived and worked here. 

“We need to create a sense of empathy, love and respect towards one another through our words and behaviour. Even towards those whom we disagree with.”

He said the island’s diversity and multiculturalism should enrich society, strengthen its values and create equity.

Vella said the scope of the conference is to understand what hate speech means, understand the root of what causes such discourse and how it can be stopped. 

“We know that most of the time, such hatred comes from a lack of education and information, but a lack of education cannot be used as an excuse for people to use hate speech," he said.

Vella said while he believed respect should be taught from birth, compulsory education held an important role in the solution to hate speech: schools, especially at a primary level, must suppress jealousy and hatred among children, and sprout the seeds of diversity and tolerance.

He said young children did not discriminate on colour, race or gender. 

"Children make friends with everyone and play together - they do not insult one another. But as they grow up, they begin to absorb words and begin to distinguish between themselves."

He said that while educators must be given the necessary information and tools to teach the dangers of hate speech, students must be given the space to understand what hate speech is and the damage it can cause to others.

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