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EU increased focus on combating hate speech   

Date

2022 03 15

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Member States expressed their support to efforts to combating hate speech and hate crimes, as well as their support to developing a list of "EU crimes" at an informal meeting of the EU Justice Ministers held on 4 February.

The debate highlighted the fact that alongside with the growth of the internet and social media in recent years there has been an increase in cases of hate speech which poses a serious threat to EU values. 

It has been noted that the crises faced by the EU have triggered a proliferation of insults and threats in all spheres of public life in Europe. In fact, understanding of different forms of hate speech still varies considerably between Member States both in terms of the definition of the offences and imposing penalties for such offences; due to these reasons, response to hate speech by the criminal justice system is fragmented, there are cases of closure of investigations into cases initiated in the Member States and the provision of protection to victims of hate speech differs from country to country. 

The participants of the discussion recalled that in the context of an increase in online hate speech cases, the EC has developed a Code of Conduct aimed at combating unlawful hate speech on the Internet, in reaction to which eleven IT companies have committed themselves to implement a voluntary user moderation policy.

The event emphasized the urgency of adopting legislation on access to electronic evidence which will make it possible to define clear obligations for digital platforms providing services in the EU and to increase the effectiveness of direct cooperation between national judicial authorities and information technology companies.

In the words of Elanas Jablonskas, Deputy Minister of Justice, who represented Lithuania in the above-mentioned event, Lithuania supports the EC initiative because in the absence of a harmonised approach and common rules on criminalisation, Member States will not be able to achieve effective results in their fight against hate speech if they fail to take coordinated efforts.
   
According to the Vice-Minister, Lithuania also shares the ideas presented in the EU Communication that the effect of non-restriction created by the internet facilitates rapid sharing of hate speech through digital measures, as the alleged sense of anonymity and impunity reduces people's willingness to refrain from committing such crimes.

"We need to increase our cooperation with online platforms and social networking companies, to promote and foster their social responsibility. Currently, our priority is adoption of the Regulation on European Production and Preservation Orders for electronic evidence in criminal matters and of the Directive laying down harmonised rules on appointment of legal representatives for the purpose of gathering evidence in criminal proceedings. These tools will help to impose clear obligations for IT platforms to meet and increase the efficiency of law enforcement and judicial cooperation with IT platforms", says Mr Jablonskas. 

In the words of the Vice-Minister, it is equally important to increase capacity and competence of judges, prosecutors and pre-trial investigation officers in detecting and properly assessing hate crimes and correctly identifying the boundaries between the freedom of expression and hate speech.  

Mr Jablonskas also stressed that the adoption of the "e-evidence" package should be a priority at the EU level. This issue is particularly important in order to establish clear obligations to be placed on IT platforms and to increase efficiency of cooperation with law enforcement and judicial authorities, as only with clear European rules on electronic evidence will it be possible to cooperate effectively in the context of conclusion of an agreement with the US on electronic evidence. 

The Vice-Minister stressed that the EU High-Level Task Force on Combating Racism and Xenophobia could be a platform for the EU Member States to share good practices concerning cooperation between law enforcement authorities, the judiciary and IT platforms in their efforts to investigate hate speech online. In the context of this debate, it would be important to learn about the experience of Member States in applying the European Investigation Order in online hate crime cases. 

During the meeting, the EU Member States expressed their support for efforts to fight against hate speech and other crimes of this kind; they also stand for extending of the list of "EU crimes"; some States, however, stressed that it was also important to not restrict the freedom of expression, as in some States this freedom was achieved after long years of fight with totalitarian regimes. In addition, the States emphasized the need to take into account the national legal and constitutional framework and to ensure compliance with the principle of subsidiarity. Besides, the States highlighted the need to take preventive measures, such as raising awareness on hate phenomena and the harm they cause. 

Representatives of Meta and Google took part in the debate and expressed their support to the EU efforts in fighting against hate crimes, as well as to the initiative to reach an agreement as soon as possible on electronic evidence in criminal cases.