LIBE Committee hearing on antisemitism, Islamophobia and hate speech in Europe

Address by FRA Communication and Outreach Department Head Friso Roscam Abbing to the European Parliament LIBE Committee hearing on antisemitism, Islamophobia and hate speech in Europe on 29 June 2015.

Thank you very much Mr Chairman, and to the members for inviting the FRA to contribute to this important discussion.

At the Fundamental Rights Agency, we research discrimination and hate crime across a wide range of areas. So I will go beyond the two topics that were discussed earlier this afternoon to other fields that the Agency works on. Not because we regard anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or indeed any other form of hatred as equivalent to each other, but because we see some patterns and similarities that can help us to combat these phenomena.

Indeed, antisemitism and Islamophobia are two very relevant forms of hatred at the moment, but are nonetheless part of a wider picture of hate speech and hate crime. The platforms from which it can be expressed are multiplying, with new social media platforms and blogs starting up almost daily. And of course, these new options and possibilities are seized on by those who want to stir up hatred.

The internet has undisputed immense advantages and potential. But the proliferation of bullying, harassment and expressions of hatred on the internet are causing untold distress to many thousands of people as we have been able to document:

  • For example, FRA’s survey of 42,000 women throughout the EU showed that 20% of young women have experienced some form of sexual cyberharassment, while 14% have received offensive advances on social networking websites.
     
  • Then, in our survey of Jewish communities in eight EU Member States representing appproximately 90% of the Jewish population in the EU, respondents considered anti-Semitism on the internet to be the most serious manifestation of anti-Jewish sentiment in their country, with up to 87% saying it was a major problem.

To quote from one survey respondent: “One feature of the internet and email is the total freedom to express opinions, which I totally support. However, the amount of anti-Semitic material circulating is phenomenal.”

In FRA’s LGBT survey, which surveyed 93,000 respondents from all 28 EU Member States, up to 19% of respondents who had experienced harassment over the previous year said that the last incident was online.

Of course, hate speech is not only found online. Sometimes we forget that politicians and other opinion makers who have easy access to the media also have a particular responsibility. For it is their voices that are amplified and multiplied whenever they speak. And this can have a profound and lasting impact, not just on the victims, but on whole communities and on society itself.

The flip side to hate and intolerance is respect and inclusion; these are the key to developing a socially cohesive society based on the principles of democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights. But there are many people in the EU who experience exclusion and prejudice on an everyday basis.

FRA’s EU Minorities and Discrimination Survey showed that 40% of Muslim respondents stopped by the police believed that this was specifically due to their minority or immigrant status. This year, FRA will repeat this survey, which will give us vital information about trends over time.

Such discrimination excludes young people who have more often than not been born in the EU, have grown up and gone to school here. However, we need inclusive societies that recognise and reward talent, skill and experience, regardless of religion or ethnic origin. Societies where everyone should be able to participate and contribute, societies which guarantee equitable social and political participation, especially of young people in social, economic and public life in the EU.

To combat hate speech and hate crime, we need to know who is at the receiving end of them. However, this is a major stumbling block as we have hear before, as the vast majority of victims do not report their experiences to the police or any other organisation. At the same time, even when incidents are reported, most Member States do not have comprehensive recording mechanisms to take note of the bias motivation behind hate speech and hate crime. This means that official figures only reveal the very tip of the iceberg.

In order to get a more comprehensive picture, a first step would be to acknowledge all grounds of discrimination as listed in Article 21 of the Charter. Furthermore, in order to improve the lack of reporting and recording, FRA has set up a working party that, together with EU Member States, as well as the European Commission and other actors, seeks to identify practical ways of improving reporting and recording of hate crime incidents. The working party looked specifically at anonymous and third party reporting that can be practically used to facilitate access to the police and of improving reporting rates across a number of vulnerable groups. It also exchanges and discusses experiences with specialisation on hate crime within police units and specialised prosecutors. It also ensures that the best possible training of all actors in the justice chain is being discussed and ultimately implemented.

We need to emphasise that hate speech is NOT just a problem that governments or parliaments must tackle, but that solutions can only be found with the involvement and cooperation of commercial internet providers. Therefore it is vital that we cooperate closely with the social media channels, the internet service providers, as well as the regular media that provide the platforms that others use to pollute the online environment with hate speech. Indeed, codes of conducts or terms of service can help self regulate content online to stem the flow the flow of hate speech at source.

Policy and legislation, in our view, should always be flanked with soft measures such as monitoring, and holding the content hosts and content owners responsible and accountable for hateful content. Such measures raise awareness and send a poweful message that hate speech is simply not acceptable in today’s society.

Ideally we want to prevent hate speech and hate crime from happening in the first place. For this reason, FRA is stepping up its awareness-raising efforts, as in our view, human rights education and civic responsibility are vital to ensure that everyone in the EU knows their rights and responsibilities, and understands and identifies with the principles of fundamental rights. Through human rights education that fosters socialisation, tolerance, empathy and respect for universal values, and encourages critical thinking, young people can bring change to their families and communities, and ultimaltey to society as a whole. Awareness raising of the Charter as well as our training on Fundamental Rights and Holocaust Remembrance for EU officials are example of such awareness raising, which we hope to build and expand upon in the coming years.

In conclusion, I would like again to put the issues we have discussed in a broader context. It is essential that politicians, opinion makers and journalists across Europe all send a clear message that there cannot be impunity for hate speech or hate crime. A zero tolerance is needed to achieve the open and tolerant societies we aspire to in the EU.