Irina Corobcenco: Not everyone understands what hate speech is, but everyone is a witness and even a consumer of it 

Hate speech continues to be present in the public space, both in the speeches of some politicians and in news or media broadcasts or social media posts and comments. In the meantime, this year citizens will witness a new electoral campaign for the presidential elections, as well as various messages targeting the referendum on EU integration. What should the media do to avoid promoting messages of hate and intolerance, what legislative loopholes still exist in this area, and how widespread will the phenomenon become in the coming period? Media Azi discussed these and other issues with Irina Corobcenco, analyst in the field of preventing and combating hate speech at the Promo-LEX Association.

In the “super-electoral” year 2024, national elections (local, parliamentary, presidential, European parliamentary) will be held in more than 70 countries of the world, including the citizens of the Republic of Moldova are expected to hold a presidential election and a referendum on EU accession. What will be the extent of the hate speech promoted in the public space in these elections and how much this hate speech could affect the electoral process, the election results? What could be the implications of hate speech in the next election? 

It is difficult to predict the extent of hate speech in the context of the next election. Why? Because this scale depends not only on how certain actors in the public space will choose to spread hate messages and how much financial resources they will allocate to pay for the promotion of hate messages packaged in electoral advertising, but also on how the media (traditional and online) will balance the public interest towards a certain topic and the need to ensure sufficient funding sources to remain in the media market. Also, this scale also depends on the quality and speed of reaction of the authorities with powers in the field of combating hate speech, such as that of the police in the case of the Republic of Moldova, but also of the social media companies, in whose networks and applications there are the most many cases of hate speech according to Promo-LEX monitoring data. And of course, this extent depends on the level of education of the society as a whole. Understanding and recognising hate speech, as well as being aware of its consequences, but also checking information sources and comparing data can contribute to reducing the degree of spread of hate speech, as well as its impact. On the other hand, if I am to rely on the monitoring data carried out in recent years, I can assume that their number will be a significant one compared to the general local elections in 2023. First of all, because the interest in this type of election is higher, bigger. Second, because the national media will follow and talk about these elections. And last but not least, because in addition to the presidential elections, there will also be a referendum on joining the European Union. 

Regarding how much hate speech could affect the electoral process and election results, I must mention that in the Republic of Moldova there are no in-depth studies that show us the impact of hate speech on electoral options. However, we have many other research and data that confirm the negative impact of this type of discourse on social cohesion and the involvement of some groups in social, political, economic life and more. For example, the Social Distance Index developed by the Development Partnership Center (CPD) shows that 65% of the population would not be ready to accept LGBTQI+ people as colleagues or neighbours, and over 80% – as family members. The same discriminatory attitudes can also be seen in relation to people affected/infected by HIV/AIDS, former prisoners, etc. At the same time, in recent years, LGBTQI+ people have constantly been the target of hate speech both during and outside election periods, according to Promo-LEX data. These data are also the result of ignorance, stereotypes and prejudices, but also of fears fuelled with “talent” by various political, religious and other actors. I think the 2016 presidential election is the exact example of an election where electoral choices were influenced by hate speech. Then, Igor Dodon won the presidential elections against Maia Sandu with 67,448 votes (4.22%) difference, following an electoral campaign marked by verbal aggression, multiple actions of denigration and discrimination against the female candidate through the aggressive use of stereotypes and gender roles. Eight years later, another study by the CPD shows us that 54.5% of the population believe that women’s destiny is the family and the household, and 18.4% believe that women are less capable and cannot occupy leadership positions. 

This autumn we will increasingly see the combined manifestation of hate speech and disinformation. Information warfare as part of the Russian Federation’s war against Ukraine places us in an area with many vulnerabilities, from the lack of media literacy among the population, to the crisis of human resources in law enforcement bodies that puts immense pressure on them to respond effectively in cases of hate speech and misinformation, but also to the challenges generated by Artificial Intelligence and how its use could influence elections. 

The most recent report with reference to hate speech, launched by Promo-LEX at the beginning of the year, concerns the elections last autumn. Monitoring data shows that hate speech increases in intensity during election periods. What can we expect in the upcoming elections? 

Yes, it does. This is a finding formulated back in 2018 and which year after year is reconfirmed by the monitoring data we carry out. At the same time, outside of election periods, the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian Federation’s war against Ukraine also presented favourable contexts for increasing the dynamics of the use of hate speech. During the elections this autumn, I think we will hear and read many already known hate messages, homophobic, sexist, racist messages and more. These will connect to the anti-European Union rhetoric and, as I said, I think they will also be found in disinformation. Many of the rules applied by European states for years will actually be used to generate manipulative messages, for example “Borders will be closed and we will not be able to travel for more than 100 days”. Many European laws that make the Union itself a socially attractive area will also be used to generate false messages and promote hatred, such as “Gays will steal our children!”, ” Immigrants will take our jobs’ etc. 

According to the same monitoring report, more than half of the authors of hate speech were electoral competitors and politicians. Can we say that representatives of the political class make efforts to control and shape their speech? What would be the trends? 

Since 2017 I have noticed that the list of politicians using hate speech is constantly changing. Some of those who were at the top of the list in 2018 are no longer found today. The 2023 general local elections were the first elections in which the use of hate speech and/or incitement to discrimination was prohibited and sanctioned by law. The monitoring data carried out by the Promo-LEX Association showed that within them, the level of use of hate speech remained the same. So, it is too early to conclude that the law has discouraged the use of this type of speech, however, we have noticed that politicians affiliated with political parties, which constantly use messages of hate and intolerance, have tried to package electoral messages differently that contained hate speech, probably in an attempt to avoid criminal sanctions. 

Let’s face it, politicians will once again spread a very large volume of hate speech. What should be the role of the media, what should journalists do so that they do not transmit, do not circulate further like a sounding board? Name 2-3 things that the media must do so that in the next elections they do not continue to propagate hate speech.

The role of the media is to inform, and I believe that for any democracy, assuming this role and achieving it by complying with the Code of Ethics is one of the safety elements that allows avoiding slipping into authoritarian, totalitarian or dictatorial regimes. First of all, I believe that the public interest is the one that must prevail in journalistic activity. So, my recommendation is to always keep in mind the question “What is the public interest?” for a certain subject or another. If the public interest is to draw attention to a phenomenon such as hate speech, then my suggestion would be to approach the issue objectively and balanced, leaving no room for interpretation and manipulation. The simple publication of hate speech generated by a politician can only be a view-getting interest and not a public one. Secondly, I think it is important that hate messages are excluded from journalistic materials, when this is possible at the editing stage (vox populi, reports, etc.). When this has not been possible, it is important that hate messages are not left without an explanation that properly qualifies them, explains why they are wrong and why they need to be punished. In any material, be it news, a report, a show or a debate.

Also, from my point of view, I think it is very important that the directors and editors of media institutions invest time and resources in training moderators on techniques to combat hate speech and other forms of intolerance. In live broadcasts and debates it is important that the moderators have an appropriate reaction to such speech. Just as importantly, make sure they have at least one more guest on set to balance out the views. News consumers must understand that hate speech is just hate speech and not opinion, and it is prohibited and may be punished. And last but not least, I recommend moderating comments on the web pages, social networks or mobile applications of media institutions. The “comments” section should be a safe space for readers and/or followers, including for the free communication of opinions. 

In June 2022, a few months after the start of the war, in a Promo-LEX Monitoring Report on hate speech, you state that online media and social networks (Telegram, Tik Tok) are the main sources of spreading intolerance, identifying many cases of hate speech. These sources – social networks – still remain unregulated in Moldova. Related to this context, how has the state of affairs evolved over time? Did the level of use of hate speech decrease or increase during these two years of war? Do social networks and group chats on these networks remain a major source of hate speech? What would be the solutions? In what direction should we work? 

This is true. In the first months of the Russian Federation’s war against Ukraine, we identified 83 cases of hate speech that were viewed more than 10 million times. About 60% of the views were generated by just 9 cases identified in TikTok. In 2023, the monitoring data showed us that social networks remain the main source of the spread of hate speech. 

What does this mean? First of all, there is a need to work on prevention. Users of these networks and applications must understand that hate speech transmitted online can be identified and sanctioned. So says my colleague, Ioana Avadani, director of the Center for Independent Journalism in Romania “the internet is not a village without dogs”. Moreover, users are also the ones who can contribute to preventing this type of speech in the online environment, by reporting it to the administrators of the social networks or to the police. In the context of the negotiation process for the accession of the Republic of Moldova to the European Union, it is important that the national authorities with powers in the field of combating hate speech and cybercrimes analyse the transposition of the Legislative Act on digital services of the European Union and establish the authority responsible for collaboration with representatives of social networks and online content sharing platforms. 

In a previous analysis for our portal, you state that the general presidential election will also take place on Facebook, Telegram, Tik Tok, Instagram, YouTube, where we will continue to read messages of hate, incitement to discrimination and violence, as long as politicians, political parties’ resort to hate messages to gain electoral support. Also here, during the election campaigns, most fake news, licentious language, offensive messages, which distort information, promote xenophobia, antisemitism, etc., circulate and the most misinformation is encountered. How can we fight the authors of fake news, but also those who launch hate speech in our society? 

And now I believe the same thing. The Internet is an essential tool for the election campaigns of those who choose to run for elective office. After television, social networks are the second source of daily information among Moldovans. On the other hand, in the case of Cengiz and others v. Turkey in 2015 (Cengiz și alții împotriva Turciei), the European Court of Human Rights drew attention to the fact that “the Internet is currently one of the main means by which individuals exercise their right to freedom to receive or communicate information and ideas, while providing essential tools for participating in activities and debates on matters of political or public interest.” 

Regarding the authors of fake news and hate speech, what we can do, as we have mentioned before, is to ensure that we have legal and effective tools to protect social media users and ensure that they have a safe space, but also to be involved in the reporting process. For the first part, we need a clear and well-established collaboration with social media companies to be forced to remove certain online content that is illegal. For the second, we need information and awareness campaigns, media literacy and human rights education, and simple, clear and transparent tools to report illegal content online. 

Of course, sanctioning the authors is also a method to combat these phenomena, but because the online environment is impossible to monitor in its entirety, we must assume a more active role in carrying out prevention activities. It would not only be welcome, but also necessary to increase the degree of trust in public authorities and a communication much closer to their “grassroots” if we want the authors of misinformation and hate speech to fail in the medium and long term. 

How frequent are court appeals to defend one’s honour, dignity? Do you know of criminal cases of xenophobia, antisemitism? How common are hate speech lawsuits? 

Between September 5 and December 5, 2023, the police registered 12 complaints regarding the contraventions provided by several articles, including art. 69, para. (3), slander based on prejudice and art. 70, para. (3), libel on grounds of prejudice. In 2023, the Bălți Court issued a sentence regarding the incitement to violent actions based on prejudice (art. 346 of the Criminal Code). From our observations, the number of complaints about alleged cases of hate speech and/or incitement to discrimination or other bias-motivated offenses is increasing compared to the last 4 years. 

What does a person who spreads hate speech risk? What legal mechanisms exist to counter hate speech? Which state institutions are empowered to monitor and combat the phenomenon of hate speech? 

At the moment, the police are the authority that has powers in the examination of contravention facts regarding speech that incites discrimination and hate speech and/or incitement to discrimination during election periods. This means that people who are targeted by this type of speech or are witnesses to it, in the public space, in the online environment or in electoral events or in election campaign materials, can file a complaint with the police. 

The criminal code provides for sanctions for the authors of hate speech or speech that incites discrimination, but not for the people who disseminate the hate speech. If the person disseminating or spreading such speech does so by adding another hateful message, only then could that person be subject to this offence. 

And now, regarding the sanctions. If the author of the hate speech is an electoral competitor, that is, she/he is running for an elective position, then she/he could be fined from 7,500 lei to 12,500 lei. If the author of a speech that incites discrimination in the public space, through the media or a computer system is a person over 18 years of age and responsible, they can be fined from 1,000 lei to 4,000 lei of lions. 

If someone incites violent actions due to prejudice, according to the Criminal Code, this person risks a fine between 25,000 and 30,000 thousand lei or community service from 180 to 240 hours, or imprisonment from 1 year to 3 years. 

In April 2022, Law no. 73 regarding the modification of some normative acts, brought changes to article (art.) 52, paragraph (para.) (3) CC, which provides that the use of hate speech and/or incitement to discrimination by electoral competitors during electoral periods, including through electoral agitation materials, is prohibited and sanctioned. Exactly two years have passed since the adoption of this law. What is the impact of its approval? Are there any changes? If so, what exactly? Are there still gaps to be removed in the hate speech chapter in legislative acts? If so – what specifically? By the end of the year or in the next period, what should happen, at the level of the authorities, of the legal framework, etc. for things to keep getting better? 

As I said above, this amendment to the Criminal Code targets electoral competitors, in other words it prohibits and sanctions hate speech and/or incitement to discrimination generated by an electoral competitor during the electoral period. From 2022 to date, only the November 2023 general local elections have taken place, so this was the first election campaign in which the provision in question was applied. And this is the first change. If until 2022, the use of hate speech by electoral competitors was prohibited only by the Code of Conduct proposed by the Central Electoral Commission, then after 2022, it can be documented through the lens of the Criminal Code. 

As for the gaps in the legislative framework, first we need to analyse the way of application. This will allow us to understand what cannot be applied from what the legislator wrote or is applied with deficiencies. This takes time. It takes time for people who are the targets of hate speech to trust the authorities and file complaints. In other words, we need precedents to learn from. Of course, we still need to standardise the terms in national legislation regarding “hate speech”, “incitement to discrimination” and so on. And last but not least, we need to update the legal framework on illegal online content, i.e. in addition to terrorist content, child pornography and copyright infringement, and online hate speech. And we, at Promo-LEX, are dealing with this aspect in this period.  

Also, two years ago, on June 18, the International Day to Combat Hate Speech was marked for the first time worldwide. Is this a holiday in Moldova? Do the public authorities use this holiday as an opportunity to sensitise the population to “promote interreligious and intercultural dialogue and tolerance in combating hate speech” or is the burden more on the shoulders of civil society? What is the role of this day? What else should the Moldovan authorities do to better promote the effort to combat hate speech in our society? 

In Moldova, this day is not a holiday, nor do I think it should be. I think that June 18 is an additional opportunity to think about those who were and are the target of this speech. As Adama Dieg, UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, said, “The Holocaust did not start with the gas chambers. The Holocaust began with hate speech.” This is what June 18th should be about. Unfortunately, in schools we don’t talk much or hardly at all about the consequences of hate speech throughout history, be it the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, the Rwandan Genocide, etc. and more recently the Russian Federation’s war against Ukraine. 

I think we still have a lot of work to do in the “information” chapter. Not everyone understands what hate speech is, but everyone is a witness and even a consumer of it. The online environment makes it much more present in our lives than we think. This is why, during the public consultations on the National Action Plan for Human Rights (PNADO) 2024-2027, we insisted that the authorities develop a national strategy to combat this phenomenon, but for various reasons, this action was not taken and so it was not included in this plan. 

However, as far as I know, the General Police Inspectorate team is planning to organisze an information campaign in this regard, and I think it is a positive signal. Last year, the Central Electoral Commission was the first authority that, with the support of the Council of Europe, launched a campaign to raise awareness and inform about sexist discourse in elections. The Council for Equality and the Office of the People’s Advocate in partnership with civil society also organised online information activities on the phenomenon of hate speech in 2021. In conclusion, I am glad that after 2022, not only do civil society organise information and awareness activities regarding the phenomenon of hate speech, but more and more public institutions have put this topic on the agenda of their priorities. 

The regional and national context shaped by the war of the Russian Federation against Ukraine, but also our tendency as a society to cling to prejudices and stereotypes, to return to them whenever we are manipulated by politicians, religious leaders and others, forces us to think strategically and long-term about the phenomenon of hate speech. This is why we need to mobilise our human and financial resources to be one step closer to the new challenges, to ensure that the legislation responds to these challenges as efficiently as possible; to develop effective mechanisms and to constantly work on prevention and education. The latter is our long-term chance.  

Every year, at the beginning of May, we celebrate World Press Freedom Day to bring to public attention the importance of respecting freedom of expression. How do you rate freedom of expression versus the closing of some television stations, the blocking of online sites, which promote information that incites hatred and war, under the conditions of the state of emergency? Do you think blocking these sites has somehow lessened the hate speech in our online space or not? 

To begin with, I think it is important to mention that the right to freedom of expression is not an absolute right, and it can be subject to restrictions under the law. In other words, under certain conditions, authorities can impose certain limits on a person’s freedom of expression, and national security, public safety, and the rights of others are among these conditions. 

This intervention must be necessary and proportionate, and the authorities must present all arguments with relevant data to justify this intervention. As we also said in 2020, when the Information and Security Service (SIS) ordered the blocking of the first news sites in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of clear criteria on the basis of which this decision was made also lacked and this set a precedent. What I would like to get across is that any limitation has to be argued, it is not enough to say “These sites have spread hate speech and incited war, that’s why we decided to block them”. Why? Because later, logically, several absolutely justified questions will arise for clarification: “What content from the news of those sites represented hate speech?”, “Why?”, “What was the extent?”, “How much news of the total number published for x days spread hate speech?” And so on. I have not seen answers to these questions. Their lack to do so leaves a lot of room for manipulation, and manipulation causes the level of mistrust in the actions of the authorities to increase. And from here, we enter the area of misinformation. 

The internet is “borderless”, so blocking some sites does not mean that hate speech has less presence. The authors of those news stories have most likely migrated or created other sites where they continue to spread the same messages. For example, in the 2018-2019 period, according to the monitoring data of Promo-LEX, Sputnik Moldova was in the top online media generating hate messages. Gradually, the number of cases identified on their page decreased, and in 2020 it was blocked by order of the SIS. They remained active on various Facebook pages with a fairly small audience, but migrated to Telegram, where the number of followers has grown steadily over the past two years. 

In May last year, the Audiovisual Council approved for the first time a methodology that would allow them to monitor hate speech on TV and Radio. Is there any progress on this segment over a year? What is the Council’s experience of countering hate speech on TV a year after this methodology was approved? 

First, we have seen the Council team use this methodology to review alleged cases of hate speech in the audiovisual media, either when they have been reported through a petition or when they have self-reported. Second, we noticed an improvement in the reasoning of the Council’s decisions on such cases. Not in all cases, but in some, yes. And this shows how important it is to have a good methodology behind the monitoring activity and how important it is to invest in employee training. 

During the election campaign, the Council focused its efforts on monitoring multiple quantitative indicators according to the methodology for monitoring the election campaign coverage, and far too little on the content side. In my opinion, there was an imbalance between the effort put in and the result achieved. A lot of work was done, but with regret, the Council identified only one case of using a form of discrimination in audiovisual materials, while we, at Promo-LEX, identified 19 cases. I believe that in the next period the monitoring process will improve, as the employees of the Council will use the new audiovisual content processing tool, and this will allow them to focus their efforts on the content analysis part. 

If we are still in the process of ascent towards integration into the European Union, this also means aligning the national legislation with various legal provisions, recommendations, EU regulations. Does this mean that in the next period Moldova will have to take over and implement certain EU norms regarding hate speech? What should the authorities adapt first? 

In general, Moldova is doing quite well in terms of legislation regarding hate speech. Of course, we still have things to improve, and we have already talked about them above, but we have passed the “deadlock” when the Hate Speech and Bias Crimes Bill sat in the drawers of Parliament for almost six years after its adoption in the first reading. We now need to ensure that national legislation effectively transposes the provisions of the European Union Digital Services Act and specific directives. 

How do you see the role of civil society, of the organisation you represent, in promoting policies and various awareness and information campaigns regarding the phenomenon of hate speech and its consequences? 

I don’t think I’m saying anything new to your readers, but civil society remains an important actor not only when we talk about combating the phenomenon of hate speech. Non-governmental organizations bridge the gap between authorities and citizens. They are often the first to reach those who need certain information, services or support. 

At Promo-LEX we will continue to make efforts to contribute to the development of mechanisms for identifying and documenting cases of hate speech, as we have done so far, working with colleagues from the General Police Inspectorate or with colleagues from to the Council of Europe for the development of the guide for the Audiovisual Council. Also, as I said, we are in the process of analysing the measures to be taken to combat hate speech in the online environment. At the same time, we contribute to the training of various actors, in particular, the police regarding the analysis of cases of hate speech or other forms of manifestation of intolerance. Moreover, we are training young people in the field of non-discrimination and combating hate speech in a long-term training program and this year, we are already at the fourth edition of PromoTE. Since our financial resources are limited and do not allow us to organise national information campaigns, the Facebook page Monitor Hate Speech Moldova remains one of the tools we use to inform the public about the phenomenon of hate speech. 

In the context of the efforts that each organisation/institution/citizen can undertake, in part, we can block, stop, warn, sanction, but in the long term the solution would be – the development of media education and critical thinking, which the CJI insistently promotes during the last ten years. How do you think we can increase the role of critical thinking in society? 

In order to have a society with critical thinking, we must make education a national priority, along with health and justice. The educational system must be rethought, so that it contributes to the formation of responsible and involved adults. Neither accountability nor engagement comes from a system where alternative opinion and constructive criticism are treated as “insolence”. And not from a system that chooses to sanction the child through expulsion for aggressive or violent behaviour, without going to their cause and becoming part of a support mechanism granted to the child, the family, the community. 

We still need a lot of communication, top down and vice versa. And yes, we need decision makers to hear and admit when they are wrong. Otherwise, we will live on two barricades, some who get angry because their efforts and “sacrifices” are not recognised, and others who either don’t care or get involved but are treated as “stupid”. We are connected to each other, and we will not be able to build anything in the long term without trust, and trust comes from critical thinking that shows us where we are wrong. When we know where we are wrong, admit it and undertake to improve, critical thinking does not turn into frustration, and frustration into disappointment and refusal to participate in social and political life. 

I believe that education is the long-term solution, and I thank you for your efforts to contribute to the development of media education and critical thinking. 

The article is developed in the framework of the project “Get the Trolls Out!”, the fifth phase of a program to encourage young people to fight against religious discrimination and intolerance in Europe. As part of this project, the IJC has the task of monitoring several media institutions regarding the way in which they reflect religious topics. 

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