How can journalists and media outlets battle hate speech on the internet? Meike Koch, Senior Counsel Governmental Affairs at Media Group RTL Germany, explains an approach that has proven to be successful.
DW: What were the experiences that made RTL and other German media outlets start the initiative "Verfolgen statt nur Löschen" (German for "Prosecuting instead of just deleting") to counter hate speech online?
Meike Koch: After the so-called refugee crisis in 2016, there was a sharp increase of hate speech online, and in social networks especially. Many media companies reacted by deleting such hateful comments, and some also disabled the entire commentary function on their websites in order to avoid such comments.
From our point of view, that was a legitimate but also unsatisfactory result. On the one hand, we value the exchange we can have with our audience and appreciate their involvement. But on the other hand, perpetrators of hate speech are not prosecuted. When we tried to report indictable offences to authorities, we experienced different issues concerning jurisdiction as well as problems reporting crimes online: We had to send our reports by letter with prints of screenshots, indicating a 'crime scene.'
In 2017, we then established a working group in order to improve procedures for reporting hate crimes online and fighting unlawful comments more effectively. Within this fruitful cooperation, we were able to implement singular contact persons and a specific reporting channel for media partners.
Without fearing consequences, extremists attack journalists online both collectively and individually, often accusing them of colluding with governments to spread lies
How does this strategy actually help journalists in their daily work?
The ultimate goal would be that comments sections are not filled with hate speech but where a constructive dialogue with users is possible and where journalists are not verbally abused via email and direct messages anymore. From our point of view, we need to fight the cause and not just the symptoms.
We aim at generally preventing hateful comments and creating a save and open exchange where we can interact freely with our audience. In 2021, we further expanded the focus of the project and included the option to report hatred and agitation directed against journalists to the authorities. Libel or insults sent via email and direct message can now also be reported to the headquarters of the Cybercrime division of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (ZAC NRW).
The perpetrators of hate crime need to bear the consequences and assume responsibility for their actions and statements online.
Can you give examples how trolls or haters have faced prosecution?
In total, close to 1,000 postings of hate crimes of all participants of the initiative were reported, and almost 650 preliminary proceedings were initiated. There have been several convictions; among others there was a six-month prison sentence without probation for a criminal complaint for reasons of incitement against the people.
One perpetrator without a previous criminal record got a suspended sentence of 11 months with the condition of a fine of 1,500 euros. However, criminal charges do not resolve the issue, there needs to be a radical rethinking that establishes that the internet is not exempt from the law.
Victims of hate speech can suffer mental health problems; some journalists have even quit their careers in response to libelous campaigns directed against them
Would you say that media professionals have gained more safety and freedom of and in their reporting as a consequence of the initiative?
Through ongoing media coverage of the project as well as related events, we want to attract additional attention to the topic and educate the general public. In that endeavor, we need to emphasize that this is not about restricting the freedom of expression but only about criminal offenses.
We are convinced that the realization that social platforms and the internet in general do not represent a legal vacuum; there is a threat of sanctions for criminal actions online. We believe that this will bring long-term success general prevention of such hate crimes.
"Verfolgen statt nur Löschen" was started within the framework of private commercial companies. Does this mean that German federal and regional governments have failed when it comes to protecting journalists?
We believe that a multitiered approach is necessary to tackle this complex issue. We are very grateful that in North Rhine-Westphalia, additional staff resources in judicial matters were allocated to this. With the joint efforts and cooperation of judiciary prosecution, media authorities and the media industry, we are raising awareness and improving the understanding of offenders as well as in the general public.
However, concerning recent developments, the safety of journalists and our work must be improved and supported by security authorities and the political framework. This is of utmost importance considering that there needs to be independent media coverage of the upcoming general election.
There are rising levels of aggression towards reporters, in particular at demonstrations and during on- the- spot-reporting in general. Journalists must always be free to portray things as they unfold, not least in order to counter disinformation. The pandemic must not be used as an excuse to curtail authorities’ duty to provide information, or to deny reporters access to public places or protagonists.
Also, the European Commission announced it would propose a recommendation on the safety of journalists in September.
The initiative is still growing. What are your goals for the near-future?
The initiative is such a huge success that almost all other German states are following in its tracks and are creating similar structures. This is a great accomplishment, and we are looking forward to benefiting from future synergies here.
Our ultimate goal remains the general prevention of hate speech by pushing back unlawful comments online and generating deterring effects for future potential perpetrators with the use of effective criminal prosecution.
Meike Koch, LL.M. is Senior Counsel for Governmental Affairs in the Mediengruppe RTL. After studying law and completing her subsequent legal clerkship with stages in New York as well as with the European Commission, she worked in an international corporate law firm and the DLR. Simultaneously, she obtained her Master of Laws degree in media law and media economy. Since 2015, she is employed at Mediengruppe RTL responsible inter alia for tackling the issue of hate speech.