Spanish government asks state attorney to crack down on Twitter hate speech

Prosecutor warns of difficulty of tackling all online insults in generalized way “Incitement to hatred” provision cannot be applied to all cases, she says

The Spanish government wants more control over hate speech on Twitter.
The Spanish government wants more control over hate speech on Twitter.Samuel Sanchez

Spain’s government has launched a legal attack against hate speech on micro-blogging website Twitter.

The initiative began a month ago with an Interior Ministry order to “clean out the web” that resulted in 21 arrests for glorifying terrorism. Some of the suspects had been asking for Basque terrorist group ETA to kill again and mocking the victims of its decades-long campaign.

But the crackdown on hate speech has taken on new urgency following the recent assassination of Popular Party (PP) politician Isabel Carrasco, which spawned an outbreak of messages from people celebrating the murder and calling for further killings of PP members.

This week, Jewish associations reported more than 18,000 offensive messages on Twitter after Israeli basketball team Maccabi Tel Aviv beat Real Madrid on Sunday to win the Euroleague title.

Now, the justice and interior ministries have requested assistance from the state prosecutor’s office to move against Twitter users who encourage acts of violence and hate.

In reality, insulting tweets are an absolute minority”

“We feel that this kind of behavior, to the extent that it encourages hate, must be prosecuted. That is why we are going to analyze ways to address new legal instruments to combine freedom of expression and information with the right to one’s honor, privacy and safety,” said Interior Minister Jorge Fernández.

Francisco Martínez and Fernando Román, secretaries of state at the interior and justice ministries, respectively, met on Monday with the attorney in charge of computer crimes, Elvira Tejada de la Fuente. Sources familiar with the situation said the meeting helped “analyze the scope and development of the cases, to see whether current legislation is sufficient or not.”

The attorney noted the difficulty of acting against these online messages in a generalized way, and asked the government representatives for prudence while law enforcement agencies analyze each case individually.

In theory, internet users are subject to the same laws that punish crimes such as threats, slander, humiliation and glorifying terrorism.

But Tejada de la Fuente stressed that it was not possible to apply the “incitement to hatred” provision to every case of online insults.

This crime entails prison terms of one to four years for “those who either directly or indirectly encourage, promote or incite hate, hostility, discrimination or violence against a group, or part of the same, or against a specific member of the group, on the basis of racism, antisemitism or other motives involving ideology, religion, personal beliefs, family situation, ethnicity, race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation or identity, disease and disability.”

We feel that this kind of behavior, to the extent that it encourages hate, must be prosecuted”

Some of the detainees in last month’s raid are being investigated by a court to see whether they are guilty of “inciting hatred.”

But an ongoing government reform of the penal code does not include crimes committed on social networks. And none of the more than 20 legal experts who appeared before Congress to discuss the bill have asked for any changes to this effect.

This begs the question of how many nasty messages are out there in cyberspace? “In reality, insulting tweets are an absolute minority,” explains Carlos Fernández, manager of the National Police’s Twitter account (@policia) and an old hand at dealing with this type of threat. “The problem is there are people who don’t know what constitutes a crime, and we all have to use the networks responsibly and take care not to cross a red line.”

While many politicians would like to see specific regulation against online hate speech, several experts on social networks consulted by EL PAÍS said the penal code was sufficient as it stood to deal with the problem.

Former High Court judge Baltasar Garzón told radio station Cadena SER that the government was taking advantage of the circumstances to “control the social networks,” and noted that Pilar Manjón, president of an association representing victims of the 2004 Madrid train bombings, has been “clobbered, insulted and slandered” on the social networks for years, but that nobody in government has asked for anything to be done about it.

Adding fuel to the debate is a Twitter message that the National Police sent out a few months ago: “‘I hope they die (or there’s a bomb)...’ is a shallow, stupid thing to say, but it is not a crime.”

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