On July 13, 2021, Cyprus Ombudswoman and Commissioner for Administration and Protection of Human Rights Maria Stylianou-Lottides released a statement regarding the phenomenon of speech that promotes/incites racism and xenophobia and the specific implications that such speech has when it is expressed online through the internet. The statement was released in reaction to a Decision of the Cyprus Supreme Court that sentenced 2 Cypriot women who attacked, in a racist manner, a Russian woman living permanently in Cyprus. The statement also marks a joint action by the Office of the Commissioner with the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, aiming to strengthen the framework for combating hate crime in Cyprus.
“These phenomena have become more pronounced in Cyprus in recent years, with the economic crisis creating xenophobic reflexes among many Cypriots against immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees who permanently live on the island,” Lottides said of the racist episode involving a Russian immigrant.
In the statement, the commissioner noted that hate speech is a global phenomenon, which is internationally recognized as having particularly negative consequences (both at individual and societal level). Lottides stated that the internet has played a role in fostering xenophobia and racism in Cypriot society, noting that according to the number of complaints submitted to her office, phenomena of racist and xenophobic rhetoric and hate speech are quite common in Cyprus.
The commissioner noted, on the one hand, that the right to freedom of expression and dissemination of ideas is legally protected as a fundamental human right and that, as the ECHR has pointed out, it is considered as one of the main pillars of a pluralistic and democratic society. On the other hand, she pointed out that the exercise of this right is not absolute and may, by law, be subject to conditions and restrictions, in cases where opinions expressed promote or incite hostility towards specific groups of the population, but also more generally in cases where issues of respect and protection of the rights of other persons are raised.
The statement’s purpose was not to accuse, but rather to inform the public on the concept of freedom of expression in context with hate rhetoric, while also presenting the commissioner’s views and suggestions on the matter. “Specifically I wish to shed light on the media’s critical role, both on and offline, in fighting this phenomenon and respecting basic human rights without discrimination,” stated the commissioner.
Lottides finally suggested that all media outlets with an online presence establish a moderating system for reader comments that will eliminate any comments suggesting hate rhetoric. At the same time, she said, the police must collaborate with the legal service so that public expressions of hate rhetoric – either on or offline – are immediately identified and investigated. To view a complete summary of the statement click here.