Our partner, Ms. Maria Raphael, answers questions on Online Hate Speech

Maria Raphael: "Cypriot society is relatively uninformed about the code of conduct that must be observed on the internet"

Posted date: March 21, 2019
Maria Raphael, lawyer and partner in the law firm of I. Frangos & Associates LLC and RF Privacy Minders Ltd which provides data protection compliance services, replies to SkalaTimes's latest questions on online hate speech.
By Yiota Demetriou

Are there any laws in Cyprus regarding the use of the Internet and the manner in which every user must express himself/herself?
In 2004, the Additional Protocol to the Cybercrime Convention concerning the criminalization of acts of racist and xenophobic nature committed through computer systems was incorporated into the Cypriot legal system by means of a special law. The special law criminalizes the dissemination of racist and xenophobic material through computer systems, providing for a sentence of imprisonment for up to 5 years or a fine of up to €20,000 or both such sentences. It also criminalizes threats based on racism and xenophobia through the use of a computer system, public extortion through a computer that exposes a person to hatred, condemnation or ridicule as well as the minimisation of the importance of genocide or crimes against humanity.

Are there Cypriot or European laws concerning hate speech?
As of 2011, Cypriot legislation is limited to criminalizing hate speech (either via the internet or through traditional means) by means of a special law which has the purpose of harmonizing Cyprus law with the Framework Decision on combating certain forms and expressions of racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law. Hatred is understood as referring to hatred based on race, colour, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin. The penalty foreseen by the law when a person publicly spreads or incites public violence or hatred is imprisonment up to 5 years or a penalty up to €10,000.  

Even the endorsement, the denial or the minimisation of genocide or crimes against humanity and warfare is punishable under criminal law subject to certain conditions.

This issue is also dealt with in the light of the European Convention on Human Rights. The right to freedom of expression coincides with the prohibition of abusing rights.

The European Court of Human Rights does not allow applicants who have been convicted for inciting ethnic, racial and religious hatred, either through the internet or through social networking or otherwise, to take advantage of the right to freedom of expression when such comments are incompatible with the fundamental principles established by the European Convention on Human Rights.

When the comments involve hatred but are not capable of harming the fundamental principles ​​of the Convention, then the European Court of Justice examines whether there is an interference with the freedom of expression.
 
When does someone have the right to take legal action when he/she feels that he/she has been affected from a post published in the social media?
If a person feels that a post published in the social media constitutes the criminal offense of hate speech, he/she can file a complaint with the police. Cyprus law provides that a criminal offense concerning hate speech can be subject to an investigation irrespective of whether the victim has filed a prior complaint with the police or not. At the same time, the victim may assess whether the tort of defamation has been committed against him/her in order to file an action before the Court for damages.

Has your firm handled any cases of libel or online hate speech?
Our law firm is currently handling cases before the Court concerning defamation disseminated through the internet as well as through the social media.

Do you watch what is happening with social media in our country? What do you observe as a person as well as in your capacity as a lawyer?
As a user of social media and an observer of the manner in which they are exploited and used, I cannot ignore the fact that the criminalization of hate speech has not managed, of its own, to promote the safe and healthy use of the internet. The internet is still an extremely fertile territory for the spread of hate speech. Cyprus law is still unenforceable in view of the fact that competent authorities do not carry out investigations on their own, there are few complaints and cases of this nature rarely come before the Courts. Cypriot society is relatively uninformed of the code of conduct that should be observed on the internet and of the responsibility of a user when he/she acts in such a way that falls within the scope of the applicable legal provisions.
 
What would you advise our readers concerning the use of the internet and on their way of expression through the social media?
I am addressing those persons who are witnesses of hate speech incidents on the internet and I urge them not to promote any material or manifestation of hate speech, whether against them or against third parties or a group of persons. They should file a complaint with the competent authorities of any such behavior that they may become aware of. Users of the Internet must realize that the right of expression through the internet is not unlimited and unrestricted but it is subject to the limits set by the law. The speed and directness with which opinions and information are disseminated can give the user the satisfaction that his/her opinion is readily and widely read, while at the same time a reprehensible opinion addressed to a great number of readers entails the risk of causing public outrage and leading to possible court proceedings against the user. I therefore recommend that every user proceeds with caution and thinks well before posting any comment on the internet, by thinking about the impact that an opinion may have, not only on third parties but also on himself/herself.

* Source: Skalatimes
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