The problem of online hate speech and its impact on freedom of expression were the focus of a roundtable organized by UNESCO, the European Commission, the South East Europe Network for Professionalization of Media, Media Centre Belgrade and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) that took place in Belgrade, Serbia on 22 May.
The event gathered representatives of State authorities, international organizations, media professionals, civil society organizations, academics, legal experts and interested citizens, to discuss the results of a national survey about online hate speech in Serbia: what it is, where it comes from and how to address the issue.
Professor Valić Nedeljković of the Novi Sad School of Journalism presented the outcomes of the survey and underlined that “as the online traffic increased significantly in Serbia during the last three years, results indicate that hate speech is not much present in online media or multimedia portals, but is very common in online blogs and social networks.”
The survey highlights that “the incompliance of legal sanctions and the frequent lack of editorial policy for blogs or unregistered web portals leaves room for uncontrolled expansion of online hate speech”. It further observes that “a majority of Internet users believe that they cannot be held responsible for the words and opinions published on the Internet”.
After discussing the scope and nature of online hate speech, participants actively debated the challenges.
One of these related to its prosecution by the judiciary. The complexity of the issue, particularly in the various definitions surrounding hate speech, identification of anonymous perpetrators of online hate speech, and the fact that a lot of Internet servers hosting hate speech are based abroad, was underscored by panelists, including Branko Stamenković, Special Prosecutor for High-Tech Crime in Serbia.
In addition to the role of the judiciary, media accountability mechanisms were emphasized. Ms Ljiljana Zurovac, Head of the Press Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina, explained how balanced, objective and independent reporting, based on ethical rules, can address hate speech both online and offline. She, however, cautioned that press councils cannot tackle online hate speech by Internet users if it is not connected to journalistic publications.
The round table was opened by H.E. Ambassador Vincent Degert, Head of the EU Delegation to the Republic of Serbia; H.E. Ambassador Peter Burkhard, Head of the OSCE Mission to Serbia; Mr Nenad Borovčanin, State Secretary in the Ministry of Youth and Sport of the Republic of Serbia; Ms Adeline Hulin, Section for Freedom of Expression, UNESCO; and Mr Sandor Orban, Director of South East European Network for Professionalization of Media.
The event took place in the framework of the EU-UNESCO project: “Media Accountability in South East Europe”, which started in January 2013. The roundtable is a first in a series of local events that will take place in each of the project’s target countries.