Hate Speech and the Role of Civil Society Conference


Hate speech in Bulgaria goes together with strong anti-European and anti-democratic attitudes. People who allow hate speech with impunity are twice as likely to vote for parties supporting Bulgaria’s leaving the EU. The same people are more likely to allow their rights to be limited on account of order and security. This means that hate speech creates imminent risk of disintegration of society.

These were the words of Georgi Stoycthev, Executive Director of Open Society Institute – Sofia, at the opening of the international conference Hate Speech and the Role of Civil Society – Reflections on Achieved Results and Communicating Lessons Learned. Mr. Stoytchev cited data from the last omnibus public opinion survey, including the proliferation of hate speech.

The results of the survey highlight two disturbing tendencies, said Ivanka Ivanova, Director of Law Programme, Open Society Institute – Sofia, who presented the survey. The first tendency is that the frequency of mentioning hate speech is increasing permanently. The second is that hate speech is becoming a “normal” phenomenon in the public perception. It is true that disapproval of hate speech still prevails, but such disapproval is not as strong as 3 years ago, said Mrs. Ivanova. The full text of the report Public Attitudes towards Hate Speech in Bulgaria in 2016 is available here.

Full text of the report Public Attitudes towards Hate Speech in Bulgaria in 2016

In Bulgaria the balance between the freedom of expression and hate speech is highly disturbed in favor of hate speech, said Maya Manolova, Ombudsman of the Republic of Bulgaria. She expressed concern that there was resignation to the use of hate speech and that the victims themselves have accepted this phenomenon. This further stigmatizes the victims of hate speech, said Mrs. Manolova. According to Krassimir Kanev, Chairman of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC), one of the main reasons for the growing proliferation of hate speech is the lack of adequate response by the official institutions. He thinks that institutions, including the judiciary, very often are prejudiced against minorities in Bulgaria. Furthermore, the lack of independence of the judicial and law enforcement institutions, as well as their fear to prosecute politicians for hate of speech, opens the floodgates of mass incitement at lower levels, said also Mr. Kanev.

Vasco Malta, Programme Manager of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), talked about the experience of the agency in the field of combating hate crimes, and Blagoy Vidin from the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, Council of Europe, (ECRI), presented the recommendations of ECRI for combating hate speech.

Some of them are related to the restriction of hate speech in the media and on the internet. The survey of Open Society Institute – Sofia shows that according to 73% of the respondents the main media of hate speech is television. These findings were supported by another survey, presented by Orlin Spasov from Media Democracy Foundation. The main targets of hate speech are Roma and refugees, says Ass. Prof. Spasov. According to him, the use of hate speech in social media is reaching epidemic proportions. A serious problem is the moderation of xenophobic comments or comments containing hate speech in online media: only 7-8% of the most aggressive comments are removed by moderators. Alexander Kashamov, Chairman of the Journalism Ethics Commission in Bulgaria, spoke about the practice of the commission. Maria Stoyanova, Chairperson of the Bulgarian Council for Electronic Media and Lubica Stanek, Open Society Foundation – Slovakia, who spoke about the role of civil society in counteracting hate speech in media, also took part in the discussion.

A main topic of the conference was countering hate speech in education. Venelin Stoytchev, Politological Center, Sofia, talked about the sources of intolerance, giving as an example the textbooks in primary education. On her part, Dr. Luiza Shahbazyan presented the results of the project of ARC Fund, whose main purpose is to combat hate speech and discrimination by linking the existing curricula and content with appropriate methods for developing cultural and social skills in children from 1st to 4th grade and their families. Lilla Nadeczky, President of Hope for Children – Hungary, Joanna Grzymała-Moszczyńska, Anti-discrimination Education Association – Warsaw, who spoke about discrimination in the Polish educational system, Maja Dobiazs, Center for Citizenship Education, Warsaw, and Andrea Jenei, Uccu Roma Informal Educational Foundation, Hungary, shared their experience in this field.

The participants in the conference also discussed the role of civil society in overcoming negative stereotypes and promoting tolerance. Anthony Georgieff, Free Speech International Foundation (The UnBulgarians), Maria Alkalay, Opportunities without Borders, Zvezda Vankova, Multi Culti Collective (see video from the project), presented their projects implemented within the Bulgarian NGO Programme. Tsveta Nenova, European Spaces 21 Association – Ruse, presented the project Anguish and Salvation: the Memory of the Jewish Communities – a Guarantee against Hatred in Society.

The conference Hate Speech and the Role of Civil Society – Reflections on Achieved Results and Communicating Lessons Learned is organized by Open Society Institute – Sofia in cooperation with Workshop for Civic Initiatives Foundation within the annual meeting of the Bulgarian NGO Programme under the EEA Financial Mechanism.