Speech by HE George Vella, President of Malta at the SOS Malta Conference #STOPHATE, 31 May 2019.

Excellencies,

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am very pleased to address this conference organised by SOS Malta to #StopHate and raise awareness on this somewhat widespread phenomenon. Hate speech and crimes are not something new. We all witnessed racist and homophobic inscriptions in public toilets or walls along the years. Nonetheless, thanks to a more globalised and technological world the propagation of hate is today diffused quicker, on a larger scale and sometimes masked behind figurative speech and different shades of intolerance.

I congratulate SOS Malta for their work and for choosing such an important topic. I believe that the NGO’s outreach and research to better understand hate speech and its implications for an evolving Maltese society is a timely, and a very much needed exercise.

Whilst there is no universal definition of what constitutes hate speech, it is imperative to look at the Constitution of Malta, whereby it lists race, place of origin, political opinions, colour, creed, sex, sexual orientation and gender identity as the fundamental rights that are to be protected and respected.

It is important that we keep into focus these fundamental rights and repeat them, if needed, ad nauseam. We need to ensure that younger generations are aware of these fundamental rights and recognize that rights are always espoused with responsibilities. In the context of freedom of speech and the propagation of hate, the relationship between rights and responsibilities is imperative to ensure one does not override the other.

Whilst recognizing that prejudicial discourse, especially delivered in a sustained and coordinated manner, can act as a catalyst to fuel discrimination and other human rights abuses, I believe that in reality, the effective protection of freedom of expression is a powerful tool to combat racial discrimination and violence.

Furthermore, it is important to distinguish between offensive expression and expressions which should be restricted in the interest of the rights of others. An extreme interpretation of the one or the other could negatively impact society. Therefore, a balance between respect for the other and freedom of speech are important and constitute the basis of a healthy and inclusive society.

Nonetheless, I cannot but express my concern at the worrying results of the SOS Malta report presented today. The report highlights that Malta has a considerable rate of online hate speech. It is of concern that the virtual world is replete with xenophobic and homophobic comments.

It is interesting to note that xenophobic comments make up the biggest share. Furthermore, the report explains that these xenophobic comments are not triggered by tangible facts, but rather fuelled by perceived threats to local traditions and culture.

Excellencies

Ladies and gentlemen,

At the European, regional and local level, we are unfortunately witnessing intolerant and xenophobic ideas seeping into mainstream politics and reproduced as facts by blogs and media portals. This is creating a vicious cycle of perceived threats, falsely induced fears and the spread of stereotypical and ill-informed beliefs about the ‘other’.

It is painful to note that even locally xenophobic and racist movements are openly using hate speech and making their presence felt at national level.

It is even more troubling that these sentiments are sometimes echoed by political and public figures in Malta. This is of very grave concern and one should question what impact similar comments have on aspiring young politicians, party supporters and society in general. I therefore believe that political parties should look closely at this report and quickly restore a philosophy of acceptance, tolerance and peace within their parties and when reaching out to the constituency. They should also be considerate in their approach and take responsibility of their discourse and online comments.

We should be blunt about this and make it clear that only distancing oneself from xenophobic comments, without condemning similar language is only playing in the hands of extremist groups and sends out a very poor message to the rest of the population.

At this point, it is important to mention the role of the media and language used in printed and online portals. It is easy to fall into the populist trap and use sensationalistic words to increase audiences. Which journalist is not looking for the most online shares and Facebook likes? Or maybe an increased interest by readers and subsequent barrage of comments and trending tweets? Terminology linking migration to an ‘invasion’ and ‘waves’ might seem attractive from a marketing perspective, however it has been proven over and over again that these are not conducive to produce informative and impartial journalism. In reality, this type of discourse defeats the original purpose of using journalism to inform the public and instead is transformed into a flaming chariot of bigotry and negativity sweeping away common sense and human decency.

You might question how can an individual sitting at home and actively using social media wade through all this adverse and misleading language? How can we ensure freedom of expression is safeguarded yet restricted enough to protect the rights of others?

I believe that legal clarity and education are two important tools, and which greatly complement each other. Whilst recognizing that punitive measures and a criminalization of hate speech are necessary, I believe that on their own they faily to counter the proliferation of hate speech. Therefore, a holistic approach should also focus on the root causes of intolerance and look at perceived differences from new informed lenses.

As I frequently mentioned, education, including informal educational programs, delivered at different levels, the most important element for a durable and encompassing Stop Hate approach. This should include politicians, members of the judiciary, local enforcement agencies and other key professionals.

I invite you to choose positive measures to ensure that government officials, civil society organizations, and the communities most negatively affected, better cooperate together and address hate in a holistic manner. Communities facing adversities should be empowered to generate positive narratives and promote the benefits of sustaining an inter-cultural and inter-connected country.

To conclude, I wish to share with you a few words of wisdom, which I am sure most of you will recognize and hopefully join me too:

Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one

I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

John Lennon, Imagine