Council of Europe official: Say ‘no’ to hate speech

The consequences of hate speech on the Internet and through social media can be extremely serious, Snežana Samardži?-Markovi?, director general of democracy for the Council of Europe, told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

Snežana Samardži?-Markovi? has worked as a diplomat and was the Serbian minister of Youth and Sports before her appointment in February 2012 as the Council of Europe’s director general for democracy. She spoke to EURACTIV Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.

You are on a visit to Brussels. How do the Council of Europe and the EU interact? How do they avoid double work, how do they seek synergies?

The Council of Europe is currently undergoing fundamental reforms. One of their purposes is precisely to improve co-operation with other international institutions, including the European Union. To avoid duplication of work, quite simply, we communicate and communicate at all levels.

I have just been in Brussels for bilateral talks with the European Commission and the European External Action Service and have recently met the director-general of Education and Culture in Strasbourg. Our two organisations communicate at every level, from the very top – our secretary-general is in regular contact with the Commissioners – to field officers and administrators. 

Speaking about democracy, what is the Council of Europe’s opinion of the impact of the eurozone crisis on democratic standards in Europe?

The economic crisis goes beyond the eurozone and it has led in many countries to austerity measures and cutbacks in areas which are critical to the maintenance and future of democracy, such as education. We observe these developments with strong concern because, in many countries, these measures are weakening social cohesion and producing very favourable conditions for populist and extremist political parties to gain support and flourish. Those are the obvious challenges to democratic standards.

There have been several regrettable developments, such as a website promoted by the Dutch extreme right to denounce foreigners, such as calls from a right-wing party in Hungary to draw up "lists of Jews". Has Europe been strong enough to react?

These are two examples of very many worrying developments which occupy us at the moment. We have reacted – and continue to react – strongly to them, at all levels. Our secretary-general has said he was “shocked” by the call to draw up lists like this and that such lists were usually the precursor of violence or even genocide – and he said it in Hungary, one day after the incident. Our Parliamentary Assembly and the Congress of Regional and Local Authorities have also condemned all racist developments. We have the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance to continuously monitor these situations. Our Youth Department diagnosed hate speech online as particularly detrimental and we are obliged to react.

Hate speech online is a phenomenon apparently taking advantage of the freedom of the Internet. Is it the price to pay for this freedom or is there something that needs to be done to address the problem?

Something needs to be done! And we are doing it. We are now preparing a campaign with young people to combat hate-speech on line, to be launched on 21 March 2013. We will be training and working with young activists and bloggers so that they have the competences to respond to hate speech online. They need to differentiate between freedom of expression and hate speech, they need to challenge passivity and silence.

Our campaigners will be raising awareness of the trivialisation of sustained and vicious attacks online. We must react, we must use our own freedom of expression to say no to hate speech.

It is clear that the consequences of hate speech on the Internet and through social media are extremely serious. Remember the young girls committing suicide, after being hounded by trolls, who felt their lives were no longer worth living. This is a human rights violation; it is not freedom.

We believe in freedom of expression, but freedom of expression is not unlimited, it has to be exercised responsibly.

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