Minister Helen McEntee and Tanaiste Leo Varadkar.

CHRONICLE COMMENT: Free speech does not mean freedom to share hate

Last month, the Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee, published plans to make the sharing of hate speech on social media a criminal offence under Government proposals to combat racism and bigotry.

This means that the sharing or retweeting of hateful speech on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter will be a crime, even if the person sharing it was not the author.

The planned law will, for the first time, provide protection to trans and disabled people alongside ethnic minorities, immigrants, and other members of the LGBT community. The law will allow for protections of free speech, and good faith contributions to public debates, academia and the arts.

The existing Incitement to Hatred Act 1989 is to be repealed in its entirety. The Department of Justice has come to the conclusion that it is almost entirely ineffective. Between 2000 and 2017, there were only 44 prosecutions, and just five convictions.

One of the failed prosecutions was against a man who set up a Facebook page suggesting Traveller babies be used for medical testing, or as animal feed. A judge ruled that the comments did not amount to incitement, despite the page attracting more than 600 fans.

The new legislation aims to be much more robust, particularly when it comes to the internet.

Hate speech directed at an individual or group will become a crime, whether it is shouted in the street or tweeted online.

This action has to be welcomed, as even in recent weeks, the use and abuse of social media has been to the fore. While online media has been marvellous - and essential - for many isolated during the pandemic, and can provide a method of communication to peoples of tyrannical regimes, it also offers a platform for outright unpleasantness and obnoxiousness.

Some of this has been directed at the same Minister for Justice, and many other politicians, and has to be called out. Two recent reports concerning the minister – that she and her husband were expecting a baby, and that she had tested positive for Covid-19, attracted despicable comments on the social media outlets of media organisations, this one included. Yesterday, on our Facebook pages comments section, the Minister of State for Business, Employment and Retail, Damien English, was subjected to a barrage of abuse for appearing in a photocall for an Aldi job announcement, no doubt invited by Aldi as the minister with responsibility for retail, to take part. It seems that people assume that once a person is a politician in the public eye, they are fair game for abuse and insult. They are not, and are also human beings with families, the majority doing their best as public representatives for their constituents.

There are exceptions of course, the greatest example being the incumbent and now again impeached US President, who has been banned by Facebook and Twitter following the incredible scenes at Capitol Hill in Washington last week in which his supporters mobbed the senate. Too little, too late, many would say, after the Donald Trump spent four years using Twitter to have a go at everyone and everything in his sights, giving a free pass for everybody to follow the example of the so-called ‘leader of the free world’. German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has criticised Twitter for its action, saying that it was breaching the fundamental right to free speech. Instead, she said that the US should follow Germany’s lead in adopting laws that restrict online incitement, rather than platforms making their own rules. It is a difficult balancing act.

Last month, Sinn Fein asked Facebook to remove a secret group of 16,000 supporters which contained abusive and sometimes violent comments about numerous high-ranking politicians including the taoiseach and tanaiste. The group included some of the party's TDs and councillors.

On Monday of this week, a funeral service took place for the garda who featured in a viral video last April during the first lockdown, when his garda number was called out during a live stream posted on an anti-masker’s social media. The Dun Laoghaire based garda died tragically. Hundreds of citizens have been sending messages of support to his husband, family and colleagues as they pay their respects to "Gentleman Garda F390".

And this week in Trim, a former councillor had to contact the gardai after a fake WhatsApp message was circulated linking him to a shooting incident which never happened, causing great distress to him and everybody who knows him.

Social media can be a powerfully positive tool, but it can also become a hotbed of hate. While the suppression of free speech can never be supported, the acceptance of hate speech can never be tolerated.

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