Under Maltese law, hate speech consists of any threat or insult directed at a member of a recognised minority group. Hate speech is a criminal offence if it is motivated by hostility based on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender or disability. In Malta, according to the police, the vast majority of cases of hate crime target are migrants, principally black individuals.

Digital hatred is growing. “We are seeing an increase in reports of hate speech on social media and other websites”, vice squad Police Inspector John Spiteri said. “People need to realise there is a fine line between expressing your opinion and expressing hate, which is a crime”, he pointed out. Such crime is punishable by up to 18 months in prison along with fines running into thousands of euros.

Moreover, senior police officers noted that the stream of reports of “simple” online threats and insults not considered as targeting a minority – and, therefore, not technically qualifying as hate speech – “had also been flying in at a faster rate”. Mr Spiteri added: “People need to realise that while they have a right to freedom of speech, they also have a duty to respect the law and not cross the fine line between opinion and hateful, hurtful comment.”

Freedom of expression is a western democratic ideal embedded in our Constitution. Freedom of expression insists that uncomfortable, even offensive utterances fall within the bounds of liberty. That tradition is best expressed in what Voltaire is supposed to have said: “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

Like every freedom, it is a matter of finding the right balance.

A campaign was launched recently aimed at tackling the proliferation of hate speech and fostering an understanding of the dangerous discourse that have swamped social media. The one-year project is aimed at cultivating an awareness of hate speech and its fundamental difference from freedom of speech.

Educating and informing people about the negative consequences of hate speech, while also stressing that honest argument in politics, or any issue of social, environmental or economic policy, need not aim personal insults and hateful and violent comments at those with whom one disagrees, is a desirable objective in a civilised society.

But it may be necessary to go further than this if hate speech is to be curbed. The social media platforms that dominate the internet – Facebook, Google, Twitter and Snapchat – bring people together but also drive them apart. They propagate hate, as well as bullying and fake news.

The social media have created an online world where governments are still working out how to enforce laws. In addition to the police vice squad, armed with the teeth and the resources to deal with hate speech, the Malta Communications Authority can also, even if belatedly, have to flex its regulatory muscles if the increasing spate of hate speech and offensive internet insults and exchanges on social media are to be stopped.

There is no true liberty in anarchy, which is why Maltese taxpayers fund police forces to maintain law and order in public spaces in the real world. The communications watchdog’s involvement may now be necessary to reflect the scale and urgency of the need to act in the digital world.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial


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