By Robert Stefanicki
WARSAW, Jun 29, 2011 (IPS) – « What Hitler started, we will finish…go to the gas chamber, Jews, go to the oven. » When Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski read this and similar comments in discussion forums, he decided to go to court.
« One of my responsibilities is to guard my country’s reputation, » Sikorski said. « The level of racism and hate speech on Polish websites is unbelievable. People all over the world can read it and form an opinion of Poland. »
The minister sued two publishers: Ringier Axel Springer, the owner of tabloid Fakt, and Bonnier Bussiness Polska, publisher of the newspaper Puls Biznesu. He demanded compensation of 5,000 euros and an apology to be published on the defendants’ websites.
This is a civil indictment. Sikorski felt aggrieved personally – some of the comments attacked him in extremely vulgar manner (only « traitor », « mason », « remotely controlled by the American Jews » can be safely quoted) and his wife Anne Applebaum, the columnist with the Washington Post.
« My aim is to make web portal owners respect the law and their own rules, » Sikorski said. The law provides – rather vaguely, experts say – that the owner, when notified of illicit comments, is obliged to remove them immediately, or face responsibility.
The sued publishers reacted by invalidating all their discussion forums, prompting comments, on other sites, of course, critical of such « censorship ». But the comments came back, now better moderated.
The publishers also issued an apology to Sikorski. But the adamant minister has not withdrawn his lawsuits.
After the minister’s official denunciation, the prosecution opened their investigation. But 80 percent of such cases are remitted, usually due to « inability to discover the perpetrator. »
Many use cyber-cafes in order to remain anonymous. And hate speech groups use servers in countries with more liberal laws.
This year the study Minority Report published by the Local Knowledge Foundation says that one in every 100 messages posted on any Internet discussion forum in Poland, on any topic, shows a negative attitude towards some minority. About 60 percent of them qualify as hate speech.
Jews are the number one target. Then come the Russians, homosexuals, Roma, Germans and Muslims.
Violent words have led to violence. An MP petitioned in 2009 for closing down a centre for Chechen refugees in the eastern town Lomza. Local Internet forums were plastered with anti-Chechen messages. Soon after, two Chechen women were beaten up.
In a February 2011 opinion poll, most Poles said the Internet should be monitored. In all 72 percent said any content insulting national, religious, sexual or other minorities must be removed.
The Minority Report is a new tool that scans all Polish web resources. The group plans to produce a ‘Hate Map’ that can become a basis for analysis, training and action.
« Our main target is to stigmatise hate speech by showing the large scale of the problem, » Marek Troszynski, head of the project, told IPS. « Now, when minorities rights activists go to the prosecutor, he usually refuses to act, responding: well, this is just one comment, or five comments…All right then, here you have over 130,000 of them. »
After media has kept slamming the police and justice administration over inaction, hate speech makers have less chance to walk away unpunished.
At the end of May, after initial remission of the case, the prosecutor brought four followers of the Resovia football team to court. A year ago they had raised giant banners against Jews.
Polish authorities seem more sensitive now to anti-semitism, but not to sexual minorities. The offended person would usually have to go to court with a civil indictment.
The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights has petitioned the Department of Justice to change the law.
« Hate speech is hard to eradicate because it concerns not just the minorities, » sociology professor Antoni Sulek of Warsaw University told IPS. « The problem is much broader. We see the brutalisation of language in politics and in many other aspects of life. »
Hate speech comes from prejudice, Sulek said. « And prejudice is a result of lack of contact. So the first step is to get to know each other. This is a task primarily for the school and the media. »
Sulek points to a positive example: the popular TV-serial Foster Family, that shows Polish parents bringing up, among others, Mongolian, Somalian and Roma kids.
But no one believes that complete elimination of hate speech is possible.
« Today a small group of extremists appropriate the discussion, and most of the users silently disagree with them, » says Troszynski from Minority Report. « We need to get hold of the discourse. » (END)