Trampled word

In the beginning was a Word… Everything through became… In it was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. And the light was seen in the darkness…

These excerpts from the first chapter of the Gospel according to John should be a reminder to both believers and unbelievers of the power of the word – logos, that all-beginning that is uninterrupted. Logos is older than Christianity and multi-layered in its meaning. In Homer’s poems, it is used to mark word, statement, speech, reason, mind, learning, truth, legality… The ancient Greeks believed that everything that was, everything that is and everything that will be has its mysterious logos, that is, speech.

The power of words and speech are also woven into Montenegrin history. The word was kept, it was used to measure humanity, which is an important part of the bright Montenegrin tradition. However, it seems that today there is little left of the light that the logos brought to the believers, and also of strength as the legitimacy of those who need to see more and further, or even to lead the citizens for the better.

We are living in an age of endemic devaluation of words, and consequently almost daily spread of hate speech and the language of intolerance. Word and speech began to bring darkness that obscures our view as individuals and as a society, and institutions do not show an adequate degree of recognition of the danger that fills that darkness.

The legislative framework exists and it is in line with international recommendations. Nevertheless, the court practice points to an insufficiently responsible penal policy that predominantly sanctioned reports related to hate speech through misdemeanor proceedings and fines. There is neither systematic nor institutional linking of hate speech cases, as relevant international reports warn. A non-paper from the European Commission on the state of play regarding the rule of law from May 2021[1] notes an increase in reports of religious and ethnically motivated attacks, hate crimes and hate speech. In addition, the fight against hate speech in Montenegro is prioritized through messages from officials of international intergovernmental organizations.[2]

Also, media reports indicate that during 2019 and 2020, one-third of the applications were rejected, while the incidental convictions were mostly symbolic, i.e. only two verdicts that included prison sentences.

The media are particularly important in spreading or restricting hate speech. At the beginning of this year, the Agency for Electronic Media temporarily banned the rebroadcasting of certain shows from Happy TV, whose headquarters are in Serbia. AEM “considered that the mentioned programme contents derogatory, insulting or disturbing expression that encourages intense negative emotions, expression of hostility or desire for discrimination, as well as a humiliating or devaluing member of Montenegrin nationality, denying their national identity and individuality,” stays in an official statement from this regulator[3]. But problems are not solved, as the “happy” TV from the region has followers who zealously sow or incite hate speech in Montenegro, but this, unfortunately, remains outside the domain of intervention and regulators and self-regulators.

A research by the US National Democratic Institute (NDI), from August 2020, indicates that more than a quarter of citizens position freedom of expression as a pillar of a functioning democracy. At the same time, almost 90% of them expressed concern about hate speech in the election campaign. This is followed by the growing trend of hate speech, public celebration of war criminals, an avalanche of insults and slander against dissidents, as never before expressed misogynia, especially towards women in the public sphere.

There are many examples of officials choosing this “term” for public “polemics”, which have the character of more an ad hominem attack and attempt to discredit those to whom it is personally addressed or the structure/organization to which they belong, rather than argumentative debates.

Also, declared hate speech becomes an even bigger problem if it is given media attention, ie if such speech is allowed to be uncritically distributed to readers/viewers/listeners, which happens through certain Montenegrin media.

Apart from the fact that in the hate speech, or the affirmation of those who are recognized by this speech, politicians are in the first row, it is worryng that representatives of such a “new speech” are entering the educational system and cultural institutions. On the other hand, encouraging is increasing public condemnation, which in a developed democratic society leads to the dismissal, resignation or firing of such persons, but in the Montenegrin context, this still has, unfortunately, limited impact.

Selectiveness in addressing hate speech by competent institutions is not a good approach. The Prosecution has proved partially effective in certain individual cases, but never when hate speech was expressed by public figures or public officials, i.e so far, no such verdicts are recorded, although in some cases there were undoubtedly elements of misdemeanour and also criminal responsibility. As a reminder, the deputies are guaranteed immunity from criminal responsibility, but they can still be prosecuted for misdemeanours, which could have a wider preventive effect.

Finally, underestimating this problem only generates other similar ones, such as racism, which expression we recently had in relation to children of African descent in Podgorica[4]. And in a deeply polarized Montenegrin society, hate speech can, in situations of pronounced tensions, lead to the escalation of other forms of violence. Hence, it is important that we start timely to unravel the darkness in which hate speech introduced us and establish the principle of zero tolerance towards those who represent it. In this manner, we can only revitalize the word, the logos with which everything begins and the reason that should lead us to progress. We all have responsibility for this.

Daliborka Uljarević, Centre for Civic Education (CCE)

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