The LGBTI community “torn” between hate speech and freedom of expression

Mirce Adamcevski




The story of hate speech is a never-ending one. But what does the practice from the work of the Complaints Commission at the Council of Ethics in Media (CEMM)?

The attempts to prevent hate speech in the media outlets and in the social media are not showing results so far.

Hate speech does not decrease, nor does it disappear from the media outlets – printed, broadcasted, from the portals and social media.

What is the current situation in our country?

Things In Macedonia do not differ much from the situation in the region. In recent years, a large number of researches and analyses have been done on hate speech by various organizations and by the Helsinki Committee, including ones from the Macedonian Institute for Media, the Institute of Communication Studies, Metamorphosis... They all clearly show the current state of affairs concerning hate speech. The reasons why the struggle with that speech has no results have been identified. They also show the weaknesses of the system, of the law enforcement authorities, the courts and prosecutor's offices, and other institutions, as well as the media institutions charged by law to take care of the media outlets and their work.

Here is a small statistic about the decisions in which hate speech has been detected as well as discrimination on any grounds, which were adopted by the Appeals Commission of the SEMM. Most of them are present in the online media outlets. Interestingly, the data for a period showed that the number of hate speech complaints was decreasing. From 2014 to 2017, so in three years, a total of 49 decisions on hate speech or discrimination were adopted. In 2018 there were 9 decisions, in 2019 - 12, in 2020 - six, in 2021, and in 2022 four decisions each. Did this mean that hate speech is now less used in Macedonia? No, and this was confirmed last year.

According to the statistics of the Ethics Council for 2023, the decisions which refer to incorrect or untrue reporting or the violation of Article 1 of the Code of Journalists and the Guidelines for Ethical Reporting in the Online Media Outlets (a total of 31) were followed by 15 decisions regarding speech and discrimination. It confirms that there is no reduction in hate speech, but it is about moving the hate speech from the media outlets on social media, more precisely, moving to the comments on social media, where some media outlets post their content.

In our country, very few media allow commenting on their pages. They are probably afraid of unexpected comments or they don't have administrators or monitors to keep track of what is commented and how. Since we know that even serious portals have two to three employees, some a little more, it says that they are not ready to take up the challenge - editing comments to remove hate speech.

What is the reason for the increase in the number of decisions on hate speech adopted by the Complaints Commission at SEMM last year? First of all, the activity of non-governmental organizations that began to monitor the posts on the social media more often. Their complaints are dominated by hate speech, calls to violence, discrimination and stigmatization, and attacks on LGBT persons or other individuals from marginalized groups, exactly on social media.

The calls for establishing rules and obligations for online media outlets and for social media, which come from relevant organizations or institutions in Europe, are not accidental. But it is one thing to seek for rules, and quite another to put them into practice. There is a great danger of increasing government interference in ethical issues. It is about the danger of self-censorship, even censorship. The experience of the Complaints Commission at CEMM shows that the LGBT community is "torn" between hate speech and freedom of expression. This is especially so, if the views of the complainants, on the one hand, or the media outlets, on the other hand, are heard, in terms of the the complaints we receive.

Article 10 of the Convention on Human Rights, which refers to Freedom of Expression is very clearly defined. But there is no single definition of hate speech.

Usually hate speech is considered to be any form of expression that incites discrimination, hostility, or violence against a person or group because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, language, or political affiliation. Speech that can manifest itself in various forms, including insults, offensive jokes, threats, stereotypes, or... It can escalate into spreading fear, inciting violence, and inciting discrimination and hostility.

The Complaints Commission at SEMM treats hate speech through the Code of Journalists of Macedonia and through the Guidelines for Ethical Reporting of the Online Media Outlets. Article 10 of the Code of Journalists of Macedonia states that: "The journalist shall not knowingly create or process information that threatens human rights or freedoms, shall not speak with the language of hatred and shall not incite violence and discrimination on any grounds (national, religious, racial, gender, social, linguistic, sexual orientation, political affiliation...)".

The provisions of the Guidelines are interrelated with the Code, in Article 10, where there is point 10.4 which states: "Online media outlets are responsible for regularly reviewing and promptly removing user comments that are published under journalistic content on websites or on social media, which contain hate speech and have the potential to cause harmful consequences in the society".

The Guidelines also include a separate Article 20, which refers to the responsibility regarding the comments published by readers. The online medium outlet is also responsible for the contents of the comments posted under the journalistic content published in the medium but also published on its profile on social media. That article states that the online medium outlet shall remove all comments that contain: reference to violence or other criminal acts, hate speech, discrimination, threats, and other forms of endangering the rights and security of individuals, groups, or institutions, regardless of whether they are directly or indirectly related to the text or the topic covered in it.

Source: skopjepride.mk

All of the above, included in the Code and the Guidelines, causes a "backlash" in the media outlets. They know about ECtHR decisions that precisely define the rules of the game when it comes to hate speech against LGBT groups. But few of them actually apply those rules. There are examples of political parties spreading such speech and of media outlets reporting it. Here is a case from last year.

The "Margini" coalition filed a complaint against several media outlets for texts titled: "Unprecedented pressure on the public with LGBT+ media campaigns", addressed to the US Embassy, ​​on the occasion of "Pride Month". The complaint states: "They conveyed a statement of the political party Integra, which contains hate speech against LGBT+ people, i.e. hate speech and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Even though it is an "alien" announcement, the media outlets spread hate speech and discrimination by simply conveying it. In this announcement, LGBT people are depicted as twisted, evil, unnatural, and illegal, that they are "an evil that needs to be rooted out."

The speech in the announcement is a textbook example of hate speech that should be limited in democratic societies... In this case, it is about directly conveying and enabling a platform for spreading hate speech. The announcement was conveyed without criticism, condemnation, or any framing of the hate speech.

This was followed by several responses from the media outlets to which the complaint was sent by the Rules of Procedure of the Complaints Commission. One of the media outlets responded: "What is hate speech for some, is freedom of expression for others!" I recommend the activists from the Association of Citizens - Coalition for Sexual and Health Rights of Marginalized Communities "Margini" from Skopje to publish a reaction to the announcement of the political party Integra, and we will publish it without any problem. If they think otherwise, they are free to file a lawsuit with the competent court."

Another medium outlet also responded to the same complaint: "Regarding the stated opinion of the Coalition, it is known that there is a constant attempt to impose censorship about any text that is against the LGBT community. Our medium outlet conveys a party announcement and will continue to do so in the future without seeking the opinion of non-governmental organizations as to how it should report. Every attitude is important to us. In this particular case, there is no call for violence, there are qualifications that can be heard every day for various groups in society, but it is always problematic if they refer only to the LGBT community. Our medium outlet does not always agree with the views that are expressed, but that does not mean that we will not convey them to the public."

The Commission had a lengthy debate about this appeal and with a majority of votes decided that the Code of Journalists was violated. The explanation states that "In this case, it is about conveying public communication by a political party in the form of an announcement through the media outlets, which contains hate speech towards a certain group of citizens, and with that the Commission concluded that the Article 10 in the Code was violated".

According to some of the members, it is a very obvious violation of Article 10, which refers not only to information created by the media outlets but also to processed or transmitted information. The media outlets can never be just pure transmitters of other people's statements, but when it comes to such statements, that cause serious damage in society, it must expose them, criticize them, and point out the responsibility of the actors who produce such speech.

Interestingly, members of the LGBT community are the target of hate speech or discrimination during the period when the "Pride Weekend" is supposed to be held. Then even texts that support that manifestation, posted on FB by the media outlets, receive comments that contain hate speech or insults.

The media forget or do not know that they are also responsible for the comments on their FB pages, not only for comments under the texts published on their portals. Some say that it is possible to see by name and surname who commented on FB, so the responsibility should be sought from them, not from the media outlets. But is it really so?

"QUEER (KVIR) CENTER" Association for sexual and gender minorities, submitted complaints to several media outlets for hate speech for articles about "Pride Weekend", published on the FB pages of those media outlets. QUEER even left messages, as individuals, on FB, that there are comments with hate speech on their page and that the media outlets should delete such comments. However, the portals did not moderate the comments.

QUEER indicates that "comments from readers call for lynching of the LGBTI+ community and have the potential to cause harmful consequences in the society"... and they add that, "in addition to guaranteeing freedom of expression, they clearly establish that the right to freedom of expression is not an unconditional right." On the FB page of one of the media outlets there were as many as 224 comments and five shares.

One of the media outlets says that, with sincere regret and resignation, they received the complaint of the Association for Sexual and Gender Minorities in Skopje "QUEER CENTER" to the Ethics Council, because their medium outlets are one of the few, "if not the only professional journalistic editorial office that persistently and dedicatedly reports on activities and struggle for the rights of the LGBTI community because we consider that such reporting is of exceptional importance for the public interest."

The medium outlet also emphasizes the public interest in publishing texts on social media. The medium outlet said in response that they have almost 130,000 followers who can see the published content: "Filtering comments is according to our limited resources and we try to do it regularly, although it is a huge effort. But we believe that completely closing the possibility of comments on posts is not in the public interest. It is also not in the public interest to not publish our texts on these topics on our official social media accounts, despite the negative comments.

There is another response from another medium outlet regarding the deletion of comments from the FB pages of the media outlets. They say: "Given our pace of content creation and the vibrancy of the large online community that follows us, we would need a 24/7 service (roughly 4-5 people) to work only on that. If you and your domestic and foreign supporters find a financial solution to help us, we will be happy to establish such a service."

After having contacts with some of the media, QUEER withdrew part of the complaints, and for those that were discussed by the Complaints Commission, it was determined that they violated the Guidelines for ethical reporting of online media outlets, in the part where it is said that the media outlets are responsible for the comments of their texts posted on the social media.

What does this mean? It means self-censorship. The media outlets will choose not to publish their content rather than find themselves on the wall before the Complaints Commission at SEMM: The second thing is the public interest. Does interest prevail over negative comments? And thirdly, how much can the media outlets manage their FB pages, knowing that even the largest newsrooms are limited in their ability to monitor and react to FB comments?

Many questions, very few answers

The question now before us is how to proceed. How to increase professionalism and raise ethics in media outlets? How to have fewer complaints and more ethics? How can there be less hate speech? Many experts recommend supporting self-regulation, but at the same time, try as much as possible to make it more visible. Media literacy of journalists, of those who work in the portals, is also needed.

Support should also be given to civil society organizations that monitor the violation of ethical norms regarding hate speech. This can be helped by registering online media outlets in the frames of the Law on Media or some new legal solutions.

Finally, The Association of Journalists of Macedonia announced preparations for drafting a new Code of Journalists, possibly also for media outlets. All media organizations should be involved here. It should incorporate the latest rules for ethical media work, which will be accepted and respected by the majority of the media outlets in the country.


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Mirce Adamcevski

Mirce Adamcevski is a longtime journalist and media professional. He graduated from the Faculty of Technology in Skopje. He spent most of his professional life (1979-2004) in "Nova Makedonija" as a journalist, editor, correspondent from Moscow (in the period 1993-1999) as well as editor-in-chief (from 2002 to 2004). He is the author of the publication "Macedonian-Russian Cooperation" (January 2003). One of the founders and first editor-in-chief of the magazine for construction, architecture, ecology and investments "Porta 3". From 2006 to 2008 he was the President of the Broadcasting Council of the Republic of Macedonia. He is a member of the Appeals Commission at the Media Ethics Council of Macedonia.