April 09 2021
Aliona Gaidarovič: We must learn to recognize hate speech

The number of cases of hate speech in the opinion columns is increasing: the Office of the Inspector of Journalistic Ethics reported hate speech 1546 times last year – almost twice as many as the year before. Aliona Gaidarovič, Head of the Public Information Monitoring and Expertise Department of OIJE, notes that although the number of negative comments has increased recently, the number of people fighting hate in the comment sections has also increased.

Aliona Gaidarovič: We must learn to recognize hate speech

The number of cases of hate speech in the opinion columns is increasing: the Office of the Inspector of Journalistic Ethics reported hate speech 1546 times last year - almost twice as many as the year before. Aliona Gaidarovič, Head of the Public Information Monitoring and Expertise Department of OIJE, notes that although the number of negative comments has increased recently, the number of people fighting hate in the comment sections has also increased.

This interview with A. Gaidarovič is the last part of Media4Change’s series of conversations about stereotypes, attitudes and issues of depiction of Roma in the media.

The first part with Vita Kontvainė can be found here.

The second part with Rasma Pažemeckaitė can be found here.

– What does the Public Information Monitoring and Expertise Department of the Office of the Inspector of Journalistic Ethics investigate?

– The Public Information Monitoring Department monitors public information, i.e. news portals, Facebook accounts, advertisements, posters. As an ombudsman institution, it is first and foremost in our interest to protect people. If we see any information that is discriminatory or hate-speech comments, we first contact the portal administrator, notifying them that a comment that is in violation of the Public Information Act is stored on their platform, and we ask for such a comment to be removed. Approximately within an hour, such comments are removed.

As for Facebook, if we see information there that is not legal, we will notify Facebook. Facebook responds in no more than three hours, usually about an hour and a half.

– Have you encountered cases of negative representation of the Roma ethnic community during your monitoring period, both in comment sections and in other publications?

– One of the publications that is stuck in my memory: “Sleepless night in Vilnius: a drunk girl and two Roma that were running away from the police were stopped”. We noted this in our decision: for some reason, the girl’s ethnicity, nationality or age is not indicated, meanwhile we emphasize the Roma as if they were fleeing the police, when in fact it turned out that there was no running involved.

We see such things, as well as comments. A member of the Roma community opened a restaurant, and discriminatory comments poured out accordingly. We immediately reacted, noticed the comments and reported them to the portal, and the portal removed the comments fairly quickly.

Portals are interested in removing such information quickly. If a legal entity, knowing that the information stored in the areas under its control incites hatred towards a certain community, does not eliminate said information, then it would be possible to report it to the police to initiate a pre-trial investigation and prosecute the portal accordingly. I can safely say that I do not remember any cases where the information was not removed.

– What is your definition of hate speech? What content is considered to be removable, both in the case of comments and publications?

In particular, there is the Constitution, Article 25 (4), which makes it clear that freedom of expression is not and cannot be compatible with incitement to hatred on any grounds. There is also an endless amount of case-law. I would not say that there is much positive case-law in national courts where individuals would be prosecuted for spreading or inciting hate speech, unfortunately not. But the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights is abundant, so that knowledge comes from there.

In short, it is a very rude, disrespectful comment about a person belonging to a socially vulnerable group, and that comment should be directed at the person precisely because they belong to that group. In other words, it is an act directed at a person’s identity. Then we look at whether this is stigmatisation, mockery, or incitement to discriminate, to deal with, and perhaps incitement to hatred. We follow these definitions of hate speech in our work.

It is still an object of much discussion, because there is no definition of hate speech and that leads to a lot of speculation, I can say that I have been working in the field of hate speech for 6 years now and there is nothing more unwise than trying to define hate speech. We just have to understand what kind of phenomenon it is and that it can be not only verbal, but also a gesture, tone, intonation, action. It’s hard to see how it would be possible to put all of this under one definition. Especially since we have an abundance of case-law, we only need to delve into it.

– We have heard statements from representatives of the Roma community that they are trying to turn to various institutions, but those complaints seem to get lost somewhere. What do you think of this?

– When I think of the last six years, I do not remember many cases when the Roma community would specifically approach us. When we start an investigation and make a decision, we must inform the person who reported the case. It is difficult to say how many of those people are of Roma origin. Unless the person mentions the community they belong to.

Are institutions reluctant to respond to reports to some extent? There is still the Public Administration Act and it obliges you to respond to every complaint. Maybe I am idealistic in a sense, but we have a policy to react when we receive a complaint, and we adhere to it strictly, otherwise we could not be referred to as an institution that protects human rights.

Perhaps law enforcement does not always respond appropriately to reports of hate speech, but the guidelines set out in the 2020 Beizaras and Levickas judgment, despite being adopted on the basis of hate towards sexual orientation, applies to all forms of discrimination. Therefore, I think that practice will change over time. You could say that it is already changing. An example of this is that our office applied for the initiation of a pre-trial investigation for 120 comments, and we went to the final instance, the Vilnius Regional Court. It was confirmed that such self-expression, which calls for violence and discrimination, is still freedom of expression and all is well. Then we got lucky with the case of Beizaras and Levickas, after which the Chief Prosecutor of the Vilnius Regional Prosecutor’s Office decided to start the investigation after all. Only time will tell how the investigation will end, but I think the situation is improving. It would be even better if we had administrative responsibility. I learned with sadness yesterday that the Code of Administrative Offences project went on a break. But I hope that they will come back to it.

– Generally, you notice that things are more positive, that perhaps we will learn to understand what hate speech is and there will be less of it. But what do you think would be a constructive way to take action against hate speech now? Maybe you have some recommendations for journalists?

– My main recommendation is simply education. Together with the Office of the Equal Opportunities Ombudsman, we have launched an information campaign that hate speech is a crime, there is now a nepyka.lt website where a lot of useful information can be found.

As for journalists, in order to write a good publication, it is not necessary to name nationality or single out certain groups, especially vulnerable groups. When society as a whole realizes that jokes about certain nationalities, genders, people of different skin colors are inappropriate, I think we will be able to overcome it. But this is education that has to be taught from an early age. I’m not even talking about school – I’d start with kindergarten.

– Media4Change has been monitoring media for three years. In these few years, little seems to have changed, especially with regard to the depiction of the Roma. You mentioned that you have been working for six years. Have you noticed any changes?

– I have recently noticed an increase in negative comments. If we saw 10 percent of hate in the comments earlier, I can now safely say that 20 percent, sometimes maybe even 25, is hate. It may be that the current events have caused this, the pandemic is contributing to some extent, we are all tired. If we have 1,000 comments, then 250 will be hate speech and about a quarter of it will be the kind of hate speech that should, in our expertise, be covered by Article 170 of the Criminal Code. So am I seeing a transformation? I am, but unfortunately not for the better, at least in the comment sections.

When it comes to publications, I would see some transformation, specifically with regard to the Roma. I’m not saying all media outlets react right away. There is still a great deal of the same disrespectful naming of the Roma as a ‘gypsy’. That is why I say that these things must be taught from an early age, because we still have [Lithuanian folklore chants] “We are gypsies of Lithuania, give us pancakes and coffee” or “Take, children, a stick and kill that Jew”.

– Hate speech is often called freedom of speech. How much time do you think we will need before we learn to recognize hate speech?

– I would say that it will probably take another generation if we take the right steps, make the right decisions and really focus on education from an early age. I don’t know if that is a lot or very little. The fact that we are talking about this is already good, as more and more people are realizing that hate speech is very bad.

A lot of people have been involved in discussions lately – there were only hateful comments in the comment sections a few years ago. Now, below those comments, there are people who patiently explain to that “hater”: hey, stop, think about it, maybe you are not right. These kinds of discussions appear. The person who opposes the “hater” is, of course, receiving even more insults, now personal, but I admire those people for not letting go and for engaging in that debate. Maybe that shift is invisible, but it is positive.