Online hate speech was growing at an alarming rate, police investigators said.

“It is worrying. We are seeing an increase in reports of hate speech on social media and other websites. People need to realise that there is a fine line between expressing your opinion and expressing hate – which is a crime,” said inspector John Spiteri, of the police’s Vice Squad.

According to Maltese law, hate speech is a threat or insult directed at a member of a recognised minority group. 

Members of the force’s top brass said that the stream of reports of ‘simple’ online threats and insults that were not considered as targeting a minority – and therefore did not constitute hate speech – had also been flying in at a faster rate.

This meant a rethink was needed in the way these reports were processed.

Migrants are the main victims of online hate speech, far outstripping other minority groups. 

“The reports of hate speech and hate crimes targeting migrants are the main cases we investigate here. There are other minority groups that are targeted, such as members of the LGBT community or political groups, from time to time, but it is migration and other related subjects that are the main targets,” Inspector Spiteri told The Sunday Times of Malta.

Since 2015, his small office in the corner of the Floriana police headquarters has been tasked with probing a relatively new criminal phenomenon in Malta – digital hate.

In Malta, online hate speech is classified as the posting of hurtful or threatening comments meant to attack a person on the basis of their race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, gender or even disability. 

Read: Fined €3,000 each for racist Facebook posts

It is illegal and punishable by up to a year-and-a-half in prison, along with hefty fines stretching into thousands of euros. 

However, Inspector Spiteri said many Maltese were not aware that leaving a comment on an online comments board or social media platform could land them in court.

Read: Social media in Malta 'rife' with offensive, anti-migrant content - report

“We see comments, things that most would not say in person, but once behind a screen, or even the anonymity of a pseudonym, they feel comfortable typing.

“People need to realise that while they do have a right to freedom of speech, they also a duty to respect the law and not cross the fine line between opinion and hateful, hurtful comment,” he said.

Among the abusive remarks investigated by the police in recent years were those made by two men who in 2016 boasted on social media how they wanted to put acid in a migrant patient’s hospital drip. Others had urged people to burn migrants alive or send them “back out to sea and let them drown”.

The issue was recently flagged by the Council of Europe’s independent human rights monitoring body.

Once one person comments, it sort of gives the go-ahead for others to do the same

In a stern report published back in May, the body warned that social media in Malta was rife with offensive content directed towards the migrant community.

The report also highlighted how Malta lacked systematic data collection on the number of reported incidents of racist hate crime, including hate speech, investigations or prosecutions carried out, and sentencing.

A request for the number of reports investigated and court cases filed by the police on this subject was still being processed by the time of writing.

However, Inspector Spiteri said the trend was pointing towards more of the crime and not less. 

“We can have a month where we receive 12 reports of hate speech, but then two months will pass without a single complaint,” he said.

Interestingly, although migrants were the main targets of hate crime, they were not the most likely to file a report.

In fact, Inspector Spiteri said he had never received any reports of hate crime directly from migrants. Instead, these were mostly filed by NGOs or civilians who had been shocked to read comments inciting violence or hatred against another human being.

Abdirahim, a 26-year-old migrant from Somalia, told The Sunday Times of Malta that a local NGO he had worked with had informed him about hurtful comments being made about him back in 2015.

“I did not know. I do not speak Maltese, so I would never have known that there were people who were saying that they wanted to kill me. Why? Because I am black? Because I am not Maltese? That is just stupid,” he said.

Meanwhile, Inspector Spiteri said he knew that the next time migration hit the headlines he would likely be alerted to illegal comments left beneath online news reports or social media posts.

“It’s a sort domino effect. Once one person comments, it sort of gives the go-ahead for others to do the same. This is what we are witnessing,” he said.

‘Stop hate’ – a campaign to raise conscience

A new campaign was launched last week aimed at tackling the proliferation of hate speech and fostering an understanding of the dangerous discourse that has swamped social media.

The one-year #stophate project is aimed at cultivating a culture that raises awareness of hate speech and its difference from freedom of speech. Funded by the Voluntary Organisations Project Scheme, it is being steered by SOS Malta in conjunction with the Times and The Sunday Times of Malta

It will also attempt to bring together a conscience towards understanding how journalism is impacted by hate speech and trolling.

Hate speech in Malta is a major issue. Research shows that it is widespread and that under-reporting it is a contributing factor to its proliferation. It is also clear that hate speech laws are often misinterpreted and underused.

Moreover, recent events serve to highlight the need for healthy debate and dialogue in a functioning democratic society.

The campaign will seek to train members of the public to differentiate between hate speech and opinionated debate on online forums, related to journalistic pieces published.

The project brings forward an element of research to probe the way the law has been interpreted across several cases and will also train a number of volunteers to assist in the moderation of the Times of Malta’s online comment boards and social media. 

The project includes research into the phenomena of online hate speech and a rigorous legal analysis.

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