Free expression is an essential basis of a democratic society. The inability of the state to limit this right, without a “justifiable reason”, is an indicator of the level of democratic maturity of a society. The right to free expression is guaranteed by a series of international legal acts, which North Macedonia has ratified, meaning that it has undertaken the obligation to respect, guarantee and protect the right to freedom of expression. All legal obligations aside and speaking from a moral point of view – Can we ourselves make our society a better place to live in, without exception, by respecting each other’s rights? Can we, while enjoying our freedom of expression, refrain from making statements that knowingly and/or unintentionally violate the honor and reputation or privacy of other individuals? We are aware that free expression is a powerful tool in the “digital world” that it is (in)frequently misused and used to incite violence, spread hatred and can harm privacy and security. Therefore, in this text we will try to address the balance between free speech and hate speech, and provide you with knowledge on how to recognize and deal with hate speech.
What’s important to note is that freedom of expression does not extend to incitement of hatred, such as engaging in hate speech. The right to free speech involves two facets. Firstly, it allows us the liberty to express our personal opinions and beliefs on a wide range of topics. Secondly, it recognizes that others may hold contrasting viewpoints. It is of utmost importance to respect these differences and avoid disseminating hatred, which can make individuals feel insecure and unwanted in society, regardless of their emotions, beliefs, or group affiliations. Our objective should always be to cultivate understanding and mutual respect among all members of society.
So what in fact is hate speech?
Hate speech is any form of expression that incites discrimination, hostility or violence towards a person or a group by reason of their race, religion, ethnicity, gender or other factors. It can manifest in various forms, including derogatory slurs, offensive jokes, threats, stereotypes, or dehumanizing language. It thrives on spreading fear, inciting violence, and fostering a climate of discrimination and hostility. But to this date there is still no universal definition of hate speech under the International Human Rights Law.
One of the most prevalent forms of hate speech in North Macedonia is directed against women and the LGBTQI+ community. And unfortunately hate speech against women and the LGBTQI+ is often seen as acceptable and deemed less harmful than other forms of hate speech, such as those based on ethnic or religious grounds. In practice, in North Macedonia, but also in the Western Balkans, when ethnicity-based hate speech occurs it receives much more visibility in the public discourse followed by a fiery online discussion and media attention. However, when hate speech is centered on gender the same is dismissed by the majority leaving only a few activist or human rights organizations to be vocal about without any major impact.
In North Macedonia and overall in the Balkan region patronizing and misogynistic speech is an inherent part of the culture which is overwhelmingly built on a patriarchal society. For example, in situations where things are going in an unexpected or unwanted manner, there is a number popular cursing phrases related to mothers’ private parts or sexual implications referring to mothers or other female family members, even though they are never part of the respective situation.
Often the threats and insults directed at female journalists and media workers involve sexist language. Such trends have a potential to lead to the so-called “chilling effect” where women journalists turn to self-censorship, or in the most extreme cases it leads to a complete withdrawal from the journalistic profession. Hate speech has far-reaching consequences for both the victims and the perpetrators. For the victims, it can inflict significant emotional distress, leading to anxiety, depression, and a diminished sense of self-worth. It creates an environment of fear, exclusion, and social isolation. In extreme cases, hate speech can contribute to hate crimes and acts of violence. On the other hand, the predators behind hate speech may face legal repercussions, damage to their personal and professional reputation, and perpetuate a cycle of hate that can negatively impact their own lives.
Hate speech crates an unpleasant society where no one is free in the fear of being a potential victim, and because of that each of us needs to take action when we suspect such harassment.
But how and where can we report hate speech online?
Hate speech in North Macedonia is regulated with several laws (Criminal code, Law on audio and audio visual media services, Law on prevention and protection against discrimination, Defamation law) and in general conforms to the EU standards. Citizens of North Macedonia can use several mechanisms to report hate speech to the relevant authorities.
The Ministry of Interior as the responsible institution for dealing with such matters provides the service REDBUTON where we can report the case directly, or use the option to report the case through the email – firstname.lastname@example.org. In the email, we need to include a link to the post containing hate speech along with a description.
Source: Screenshots of Red Button
Another way of reporting hate speech online is to the State Commission for Prevention of Discrimination which is an independent body responsible for promoting and protecting human rights and combating discrimination. We can report the incident at this link.
The Ministry of Justice also offers free legal aid. Citizens with disadvantaged economic status can turn to the Ministry of Justice and its regional offices and ask for legal assistance or to be provided with a lawyer who will be paid from the Ministry’s Budget. Primary legal aid is provided by authorized persons from the Ministry of Justice or from regional offices located within cities within the country. Primary legal aid is provided by authorized associations.
One other way to ask for assistance when faced with hate speech online is reaching out to non-governmental organizations working on human rights and anti-discrimination issues in North Macedonia. Such is the platform Govor na omraza managed by the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights.
This platform functions on the basis of citizens’ reports on cases of hate speech where we can report in several ways:
- Through the online form, through which you can also send a photo or video;
- Via e-mail: email@example.com;
- Via #govornaomraza on Twitter;
- Via Android or iPhone application.
After reporting in one of the listed ways, the report is considered by the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights. If we have entered our personal data, the Helsinki Committee may contact us during the review and verification of the application. After confirmation, our application will be displayed on the page (without displaying our personal data).
Source: Screenshot of Hate speech (govornaomraza.mk)
Some other NGOs that offer free legal aid can be found at this link.
In order to put an end to the spread of hate speech, collective efforts from all stakeholders are needed. Here are some steps we can collectively take to successfully combat hate speech online:
- a) Education and Awareness: Education on this topic is much needed, and it is best that schools integrate anti-hate speech activities into their work at least in the form of extracurricular activities. We should encourage conversations that foster empathy, understanding, and respect for diversity. By raising awareness, we can collectively reject hate speech and create a culture of inclusivity.
- b) Reporting Hate speech: If we know someone who is victim of hate speech we should encourage them and support them in reporting the case, instead of accepting it as something normal. It is also really important if we know someone who causes hate speech to try and talk to them and explain the consequences to their actions on the victim but also they as the perpetrator. Reporting hate speech incidents to the relevant online platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc.) or to the relevant state authorities is essential. Most platforms have mechanisms in place to report and flag offensive content. By actively reporting hate speech, we can ensure that it is promptly addressed and removed.
- c) Engaging in Counter Speech: We need to speak up against hate speech with counter speech that promotes tolerance, understanding, and respect. By initiating open dialogue that cultivates empathy, understanding, and respect for diversity, we promote inclusivity and create a more compassionate online environment.
- d) Advocating for Stronger Policies: Advocating for stronger policies and regulations against hate speech both online and offline is crucial. We need to encourage governments, organizations, and online platforms to enforce stricter guidelines that discourage hate speech and protect individuals from its harmful effects.
This text was produced as part of the project “Good Governance in Cybersecurity in the Westen Balkans”, implemented by DCAF – Geneva Center for Security Sector Governance, funded by Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office of the Government of the United Kingdom. The contents of the text are the sole responsibility of the author, and may not reflect the positions of DCAF and the donor.
To read more about the gender perspective of online hate speech cases in North Macedonia, read the research Online actions, offline harms: Case studies on gender and cybersecurity in North Macedonia and the Western Balkans which was prepared by the Metamorphosis Foundation with the support of DCAF – Geneva Center for Security Sector Management.
The views and conclusions expressed in this study belong to the authors and the Metamorphosis Foundation and do not necessarily reflect the views of DCAF and FCDO. The copyright on this publication belongs solely to Metamorphosis Foundation. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of Metamorphosis Foundation.