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Current challenges on freedom of expression in Europe

In order to reduce conflicts and foster a civilized discourse, over the last few years many European countries have issued a series of hate speech laws. Although nowadays it has entered popular use, the term “hate speech” cannot be found in the language of the major international treaties on human rights; in addition, the proper meaning of the term has not yet been clearly defined by the European Court of Human Rights. National laws and IT companies ascribe to the term “hate speech” different connotations such as “insult”, “belittle,” and “offend”; but their interpretation of this term is rather arbitrary. It is precisely in this context that the Euractiv Media Network and the ADF International convened a conference in Brussels, on 16 May 2018, to address the current challenges related to the notion of freedom of expression in public space.

In the opening of this conference, Věra Jourová, the EU Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, took the floor to explain how the Code of Conduct on countering illegal hate speech online works. To this end, he also presented the results of the monitoring exercises on the implementation of this Code. The EU Commissioner praised the fact that since May 2016 the spread of online hate speech has been prevented and countered by IT platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube. Respecting both EU and national anti-hate speech, these platforms analyze user’s notifications and remove, when necessary, illegal content. Despite criticism against this Code of Conduct, the EU Commissioner stressed that the emergence of hate speech on online social platforms has cultural roots and that the implementation of a-one-size-fits-all solution would be a mistake for the EU.

In her intervention, Nadine Strossen, former President of the American Civil Liberties Union and Professor of law at the New York Law School, emphasized that censorship is not the best way to resist hate speech. She pleaded instead for a vigorous counter speech and activism, offering the example of the US laws, which punish hate speech only when it causes imminent serious harm; the US laws does not react to such speech just because it sounds simply disturbing.

The third speaker, Sophia Kuby, Director of EU Advocacy for ADF International, underlined the importance of the freedom of speech and its close connection with other forms of freedom in our society. In her opinion, hate speech laws do nothing but discourage the public discourse and create a culture of silence where ideas are not confronted with free speech, but with criminal penalties.

Last but not least, the founder of Euractiv, Christophe Leclercq, approached the pressing issue based on diluting disinformation with quality content and helping media sustainability in 2019-2024. He underlined the importance of the so-called trust indicators, which can be fed by tech companies, news agencies and academics, helping algorithms to promote quality contents. The conference ended with an open discussion in which also other stakeholders shared their experience and expertise on the topic at stake.

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