The spoken word can kill more than ever before

Freedom of speech should be nurtured, and its abuse should not be underestimated. In this regard, Adam Michnik, a well-known Polish publicist and essayist, would say, “People kill first with words, and only afterwards with the sword“. With this thought, he only reminds us of the importance of public speech, but also warns us that the abuse of freedom of expression should not be underestimated.

The power of the spoken word in modern times is more influential than ever before, and there are several reasons why this is the case.

First and foremost, in recent years, everyday communication between people tends to be digital on closed applications or semi-open social networks, one of the most dominant of which is Facebook. More than a third of the people in the world, or 2.7 billion, have their personal Facebook profile, and in the Republic of North Macedonia, according to Dataportal, out of 1.69 million Internet users, over 1.1 million use social media networks, predominantly Facebook. This means that more than half of the citizens in North Macedonia with access to the Internet are actively or passively present on social media networks, which is significantly higher than the world average.

The second argument is that ignorance about the risks of misusing freedom of speech and using hate speech even on social media networks can cause social tensions that could disrupt public order and peace. An additional factor is the relatively low culture in the public communication of politicians in the Republic of North Macedonia, which is especially pronounced in the political party campaigns before the elections, regardless of whether they are regular or extraordinary. In conditions of obvious polarization by political party affiliation in the society, through such often inappropriate communication, most of the politicians encourage groups of citizens to spread hatred and intolerance, mostly on social networks, but also at public gatherings. The nature of hatred expressed in this context is usually by party affiliation, yet, oftentimes it could be expressed on a different basis, such as ethnic or religious affiliation, or sexual orientation.

And third, and perhaps the most important, is the impunity of hate speech and public threats, first and foremost, on social networks in the domestic context, which, unfortunately, are an everyday occurrence. According to the Association of Journalists of Macedonia, there are currently only two final rulings that the Criminal Code qualifies as acts of hate speech (Article 319) and only a few rulings for publicly expressed threats that endanger the safety of an individual or a group of people. The lack of case law shows that the problem of impunity when using hate speech in public discourse is, first and foremost, systemic in nature, and this, in turn, can cause serious security damages, if publicly expressed hatred by the competent institutions is tolerated.

These three combined factors: the easily accessible Internet, i.e. digital mass communication platforms, the political ignorance that is reflected in the manner of communication of the citizens and the high level of impunity are a dangerous basis for a serious security risk in the Republic of North Macedonia, not only for individuals and groups, but for society in general.

Citizens should know that, according to Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right includes freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. More importantly, this right is not absolute, and when it jeopardizes other rights, especially the absolute ones, such as the right to life or the right to thought, it is subject to certain restrictions.

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