Combating inappropriate speech in the online space is the interest and obligation of the entire society

Despite certain positive developments in addressing hate speech in the public sphere, a more proactive institutional approach is needed, and communication on this issue must be substantive to continuously point out the harmful effects of hate speech and related forms of inappropriate speech, as well as the consequences it has on direct victims and society as a whole. This is concluded, among other things, in the analysis of the Centre for Civic Education (CCE) “From the other side of the keyboard: Hate speech from the perspective of citizens, law, and case studies.”

The authors of the publication, Maja Marinović, Damir Suljević and Damir Nikočević, provide insights into the legal framework that address this area, as well as relevant research and analyses from domestic and international organizations. Also, through monitoring and processing of specific cases, the report illustrates how institutions with the authority and responsibility to process these cases operate. The recommendations aim to fill „legal gaps“ to strengthen Montenegrin legislative framework in this area.

The CCE’s research, conducted in October 2022, shows that in 70% cases citizens who were targeted by hate speech were subjected to it on more than one occasion. In half of the cases, victims of such comments chose to ignore them, 23% reported them to the social media platform or the website where the incident occurred, and only 4% reported hate speech to the relevant state authorities. As a reason for not reporting hate speech, a third cited a lack of trust in self-regulation on platforms and social media, and more than a quarter said they lacked trust in the authorities responsible for processing these cases.

The manner misdemeanors courts in Montenegro and the Police Directorate maintain records is incosistent, which makes it impossible to monitor their work, especially in the context of a comprehensive evaluation of effectiveness. It would be significant for the complainants to have a registry through which they could track the case from initiation to a final decision, especially given that these cases have no priority in misdemeanors courts, which can be discouraging for the complainants who are often direct victims. Additionally, this would provide valuable insights into the statistics and penal policies in these cases, as highlighted in the publication.

The practice also indicates the necessity of strengthening the legislative framework related to sanctioning hate speech on portals and social media, primarily within the Law on Media regarding portal responsibilities, especially for not acting on comment removal requests or not acting within the stipulated period.

The CCE filed a total of 59 misdemeanor reports to the Police Directorate against 62 individuals who made comments with problematic content on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter in just three waves during 2021 and 2022. This approach, through which the content of the comments was analyzed in just a few days and on several posts, aimed to highlight the scale of the problem in this area and to test the institutional readiness for an appropriate response.

These reports were processed in accordance with the Law on Public Order and Peace, which prescribes fines ranging from 100 to 1000 EUR, depending on how the act of insult in public places is categorized. Most of these cases related to comments posted on the Facebook pages of portals where links to articles containing quotes from CCE representatives were published. In terms of gender structure, men significantly outnumbered women in cases involving inappropriate comments, and identification was not possible for several persons. Ultimately, the penalties varied, ranging from fines of 60 EUR with 10 EUR in procedural costs to fines of 250 EUR with 30 EUR in procedural costs, to some cases that included warnings or conditional sentences with the threat of imprisonment in the event of repeated offenses.

The CCE team assessed that these procedures had several shortcomings. Primarily, there was incosistent practice across different misdemeanor courts or even different judges within the same misdemeanor courts. The course of the proceedings was marked by ignorance and, incompetence of some judges who often openly expressed a lack of understanding of the procedures related to these types of offenses. This highlights the need for capacity-building among misdemeanor judges regarding the significance and effective handling of cases involving hate speech and related forms of inappropriate behavior.

Additionally, the Prosecution should be more proactive in prosecuting hate speech, especially when it comes to the statements of prominent public figures, which until now was mostly recognized as hate speech, although that was the case. The lack of an adequate response from the relevant institutions in such cases encourages the spiral of hate speech and other forms of inappropriate speech in the online space. Therefore, a more proactive approach by the prosecution could have a broader preventive effect, in addition to its direct repressive impact on individuals.

Finally, efforts should be made to increase public awareness of the reporting mechanisms for combating hate speech in the online space and encourage citizens to fight for the protection of their rights.

This analysis was published as part of the project “Stand Up Against Discrimination, Hate Speech, Misogyny, and Other Forms of Digital Violence,” implemented by the CCE and supported by the Canadian Embassy.

Maja Marinović, Programme associate