Author: Dragan Sekulovski, Executive Director of AJM
Civil society organizations working to promote human rights, as well as those in the media sector, regularly initiate public debates on the dangers of hate speech and its consequences when it is not sanctioned.
These debates are attended by international and local experts on topics related to hate speech, discrimination and freedom of expression and discussions revolve around new trends in the country and the region in relation to these issues. Rarely, and perhaps never, are these topics publicly raised by executive or judicial institutions. Why is that?
First of all, in North Macedonia there is almost no court practice, i.e. according to the Association of Journalists of Macedonia, there are only two final judgments on cases related to hate speech that have already been finalized before the Criminal Court, so there is not much to discuss. Unlike the modest or almost non-existent case law on hate speech in our country, the European Court of Human Rights has experience, not only with cases of hate speech on traditional media, but also on digital platforms, including social media.
Government institutions also rarely address these issues, despite the obvious, growing, trends of speech that abound in calls for violence and discrimination on multiple grounds, and so far, at least for the general public, there have been no public debates to discuss the danger of tolerating hate speech. On the other hand, the Ministry of Justice recently announced interventions in the Criminal Code in the part related to hate speech, and as a result, the expectations are that the public consultations would be initiated, not only with the journalistic profession, but also with the professional public. It is important to consider international definitions and rules of hate speech, but it is even more important to include the local community in legal changes to these acts as each country has its own, specific, local context to consider .
In this regard, in mid-November this year, the Council for Media Ethics of Macedonia (CMEM) organized a debate on "Connecting the self-regulatory body, the media broadcasting regulator and the Ombudsman in the protection of human rights and addressing hate speech". It is extremely important that the coordination and discussions of these bodies in the future is expanded with the institutions that can influence the prevention of spreading hate speech, but also its punishment. If there is no joint coordination and joint efforts in this field with all stakeholders, no matter how hard civil society organizations are trying to fight hate speech, the problem will only grow and can lead to hate crimes, which are crimes that pose a danger to the peace and security of the citizens.
The President of the CMEM Managing Board, Katerina Sinadinovska says that the urgent reaction of the competent institutions, such as the Public Prosecutor's Office and the Ministry of Interior, through a coordinated and institutional response to the perpetrators is a key tool for suppressing hate speech. "Ignoring and not punishing hate speech by the institutions does not help anyone, because civil society organizations alone cannot fight if these crimes have been tolerated for thirty years", Sinadinovska added.
CMEM plays an important role in raising awareness of the seriousness of spreading hate speech in the media and they can play a serious preventive role in reducing this speech in the media, especially the promotion of the Journalists Code of Ethics.
According to Mirche Adamchevski, President of the CMEM Appeals Commission, in addition to the law enforcement agencies for prevention, but also the sanctioning of hate speech present in the media, and on social networks, the Ombudsman also plays an important role. Adamchevski believes that this institution in the other countries has close cooperation with the civil society organizations that are part of the media sector, and works on issues related to the abuse of freedom of expression.
Cross-sectoral cooperation and joint actions are the best way to deal with this type of challenge and therefore there are many positive examples from our neighbouring countries.
Hate speech can cause tensions on ethnic, religious, partisan and other grounds, especially when broadcast on national television, which is why the media regulator has a very important role to play in prevention and sanction.
Emilija Petreska-Kamenjarova, Head of the Department of Human Rights and Media Literacy at the Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media Services (AAAVMS) explains that the key role of the regulator is to monitor content that has elements of discrimination in traditional media not only on the basis of national or ethnic affiliation, gender, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, affiliation to a marginalized group, language, but also on any other grounds, and in accordance with the law. Kamenjarova adds that "in the past, in the period from 2014 to 2018, the media regulator did not have a legal opportunity to directly impose a sanction on the media for violating this article and addressed, unsuccessfully, the BPPO, and from the end of 2018, the opportunity to sanction is available again, the difference being that now you can file a request for minor offence charges before a competent court".
The expert debate organized by CMEM encourages and improves the joint communication between the civil society organizations and certain competent institutions that can help in controlling the spread of hate speech. In the future, naturally, there is a need for a greater proactive approach on these issues by the Basic Public Prosecutor's Office, not only in additionally exposing these topics, but also by employing concrete measures through which those who abuse the right to freedom of speech will be prosecuted and punished.