“Whether shouted in their face on the street, daubed on their wall, or tweeted into their living room, the impact of hateful abuse on a victim can be equally devastating”, stated Alison Saunders, former head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). Hate speech must be treated like other threats; the focus should be on the effect on the victim, not on the offender’s intent. The modern means of communication provided visibility to an endless stage, increasing offensive expressions of racial and political hatred, often challenging to track. The mass perception in regards to the increase of migrants and refugees brought to alarmist headlines in major newspapers, right-wing propaganda, and unmoderated social-media trolls and bots which fired up the public debate, and not always in a positive way. From a legal perspective, hate tethers on that thin line that separates the right to freedom of expression from censorship, representing one of the most debated concerns of the current digital era.
Xenophobic discourse is rife in Italian public life
The rise of aggression towards minorities has raised significant concerns on the relationship between hate speech and acts of harm. The responsibility of states and media legislation is fundamental to regulate this phenomenon. Evidence shows that hate crimes worldwide reflect changes in the political sphere, while social media amplifies disputes contributing to raging great violence.
Before the 2018 general parliamentary elections, Amnesty International monitored the Italian political leaders observing their social-media profiles, identifying 253 messages spreading stereotypes and misrepresentation in a hostile language. Political figures such as Matteo Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi are responsible for driving a significant rise in racial hate speech. Xenophobic comments as “immigrants are lazy criminals” have greatly influenced the general public opinion, to the extent that 58% of the Italian population feels unsafe due to the presence of migrants.
In 2019, UNICEF surveyed over 300 migrants and refugees in Italy. Interviewees testified in awe of the presence of racial discrimination, mostly based on skin colour. Amongst those interviewed, 54% didn’t even know what “hate speech” was.
Salvini, the former Italian Prime Minister, denied the accusations of creating a climate of hate. He tweeted, “the wave of racism is simply an invention of the left”. However, since he entered parliament in 2018, 12 shootings and 33 physical offences were directed at migrants where perpetrators regularly shouted Salvini’s name, confirming his influence over the public’s attitudes towards migrants. Activists are also being accused of de-nationalising the state. Armando Spataro, Turin’s district attorney, committed to tackling racial discrimination, received insults and threats on Facebook.
The Italian government continues to ignore the growing number of assaults. Salvini, in response, tweeted, “immigrants are to be blamed for the rise in crime”.
The mainstream press can also be equally inflammatory. Vittorio Feltri, director of Libero, has shown no compassion for immigrants. The death of a four-year-old girl in Brescia caused by malaria was reported as:
“After bringing along their misery, they also bring their diseases”.
and again, he reported,
“Cholera in Naples, immigrants brought it”.
Feltri’s stories provoked a strong reaction of the “Ordine dei Giornalisti”, the UK’s equivalent, IPSO, a self-regulatory body starkly missing in some parts of the world. They police the Journalists’ ethical Code of Conduct (CoC), based on Rome’s Charter concerning asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants. The CoC, which does not mention “hate speech” specifically, aims to recognize and respect equality, diversity, and dignity, avoiding inaccurate and distorted information or inappropriate terminologies. Yet penalties applied to violations of the code are relatively light, therefore, rarely observed. Feltri defended himself from accusations of being too harsh and racist, stating that his articles’ titles might have been provocative but were purely factual. He stated: “Hate speech does not exist; there are facts and ways of narrating them”.
Developments to contrast Hate Speech?
In Italy, there still isn’t a dedicated law to the notion of hate speech as article 3 of the Italian Constitution safeguards the right to freedom of expression and equal dignity. These concepts conflict with the framework around hate speech. Article 13 of the CoC states that there are no limitations to freedom of speech, although a person’s dignity must be ensured concerning discrimination and hateful incitement. Nevertheless, Italy has adhered to the Recommendation n. 20 of the Committee of Ministers to Member State on Hate Speech, including all forms of expression that encourage intolerance and hatred.
The Italian Mancino Law (L. n.205/1993) represents the main legislative act close to this concept. It prohibits sharing ideas based on racial superiority or ethnic hatred, punishable for up to 3 years. (But it does not focus on instigation or propaganda, so it can’t be applied to online hate speech). Similarly, Italian criminal laws address the most effective hate-speech forms tied to race, ethnic origin, nationality, and religion; however, sanctions do not extend to other offences.
The Italian National Office Against Discrimination (UNAR) and the Observatory for Security Against Acts of Discrimination (OSAAD) are the major institutions that aim to stop hate speeches. UNAR focuses on increasing awareness by monitoring victims’ complaints and providing them with assistance, while OSAAD collects data and creates campaigns to raise consciousness on hate crimes. These institutions confirmed back in 2011 that Internet ‘trolls’ are responsible for 84% of racist behaviours, facilitated by its anonymity.
The Jo Cox Commission that examined hate speech in Italy in 2017 claims the Italian government should guarantee UNAR’s independence from the state to ensure conformity within the international human rights mechanisms to which Italy belongs. Moreover, this provision would secure its role in delineating laws, regulations, and practices against hate speech. AGCOM (Autorità per le Garanzie nelle Comunicazioni) is responsible for developing conduct regulations in this field, encouraging Internet intermediaries to examine their operating terms and community regulations systematically, while divulging data related to specific demands by removing or maintaining content.
The Italian Communications Regulatory Authority, alongside the Institute of Advertising Self-Regulation, monitors and censors any content that contains incitement of hatred or intolerant behaviour based on race, sex, religion, or nationality. These self-regulation measures were updated after the EU Council Framework Decision 2008/913/JHA, focused on combating any expression of xenophobia and taking the latter as aggravating motivations in front of the court in the determination of a penalty. In 2011 Italy signed the Council of EU protocol on cybercrime, which concerns the criminalisation of racist acts committed through a computer system. (30% of Italian students received hate speeches online).
To counter online hate speech, the EU commission and member states signed in 2016 a CoC. The non-binding regulations entailed in this code encouraged the major internet companies that deal with social media and un-monitored online anonymous interaction such as Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and YouTube to assess and remove illegal hate-speech content within 24 hours.
Room for improvement following International Measures
Knowing that discriminatory hatred stimulates hostility, prejudice, and violence, hate speech should be restricted to uphold Articles 19 (3) and Article 20 (2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). These articles balance the need to combat hate speech with freedom of expression under the Rabat Action Plan OHCHR. Article 19 argues that to protect the freedom of expression, there has to be a clear evaluation of hate speeches on their graveness of offensiveness. Moreover, it proposes the inclusion of an efficient system to identify and flag unlawful content, as the removal of lawful ‘hate speech’ would imply a violation of the user’s freedom of expression.
The list of protected attributes in Italian criminal law should also be reconsidered in the light of the right to non-discrimination referred to in Article 2 (1) and Article 26 of the ICCPR.
Journalists’ organisations may develop training aligned to the international standards on hate speech, freedom of expression, and ethical behaviour to contain the effects of hate speech. Moreover, having an Advisory Committee would ensure that the CoC concerning the difference between hate speech and incitement to hate are effectively performed. The systems should be extensively promoted and assimilated by journalists and media organizations to ensure change.
Hate speech in Italy is still inadequately regulated and degenerating into violence. In recent days, racist attacks on Asians are spreading faster than coronavirus itself.
The analysis conducted on National, European and International policies outlined the increasing phenomenon of Hate Speech on websites, blogs, and social networks, revealing a discrepancy regarding legislative actions.
There is an urgent need to empower institutionalised and political figures, which significantly influence the public sphere. Making internet moguls and social-networks giants collectively liable under the law would make them more proactive. Nevertheless, the legal commitment is just as essential to provide a universally accepted definition of online hate speech and determine it as a severe criminal offence when committed intentionally.