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Social media must curb hate speech, says France

Orthodox Jews walk in the Marais district of Paris.
Orthodox Jews walk in the Marais district of Paris. Miguel Medina, AFP

France is calling for the international regulation of social networks in order to crack down on “racist and anti-Semitic propaganda,” a senior minister said on Thursday at the UN’s first-ever summit on tackling anti-Semitism.


“There are hate videos [online], calls for death, propaganda that have not been responded to, and we need to respond,” Harlem Désir, France’s State Secretary for European Affairs, told reporters on the sidelines of the General Assembly meeting.

“[Those who propagate] terrorism, religious fanaticism, jihadism and radical Islam use the Internet enormously,” he said." We must limit the dissemination of these messages.”

Désir lambasted social networks for what he described as a failure to take responsibility for “racist or anti-Semitic” content published on their platforms, citing Facebook and Twitter as examples.

“We want to be clear with what we have seen – that those networks are used to promote violence, discrimination, and hatred. The answer from these companies has been to say that ‘we are not responsible for what is said’.”

In response, France wants to create a legal framework that would “place the responsibility on those who are passing the message, even if they are not deciding the message,” he said.

Désir spoke alongside his German counterpart Michael Roth, two weeks after four Jewish shoppers were shot dead in a kosher supermarket as part of a three-day assault by Islamist terrorists in and around the French capital. The call for stricter online regulations comes as part of a wider programme to heighten security and increase surveillance, as France reels from its worst terror attacks in decades.

‘Difficult’ issue of freedom of expression

Désir was keen to stress that the proposed law would not target freedom of expression, a principle for which some four million people in France marched in support after the terror attacks, which began on the morning of January 7 with the massacre of “blasphemous” cartoonists at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

“It’s very difficult because we are profoundly attached to the principle of freedom of expression,” he said. “There needs to be a clear distinction between freedom of expression, which is a fundamental right, and the liberty to incite hate, discrimination, and death.”

Comparing hate speech with the dissemination of child pornography, he called for a consensual international effort to curtail it. “This can’t be done country by country,” he said, adding that the European Union member heads of state would address the issue on February 12.

The US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, described Désir’s plan as an “interesting proposal” that would require consulting both the general public and the private sector.

“We’re very alert to the extent to which social media platforms are being exploited by violent extremists across the board, including by al Qaeda and Islamic State,” Power said, also stressing the importance of protecting freedom of speech.

Islamophobia too?

Responding to questions by FRANCE 24, Désir said the rise in anti-Semitism had been partly fuelled by the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. “We don’t want this conflict to be a pretext used by a new anti-Semitism to promote the hatred of Jews,” he said.

“You have the right to disagree with the policy of either government. But you don’t have the right to promote discrimination, hatred or violence,” he reiterated.

France has long been criticised for failing to address Islamophobia as seriously as anti-Semitism, a critique exacerbated by a spike in Islamophobic incidents following the Paris attacks. Désir insisted that members of the two faiths were treated equally across the continent. “The common basis across Europe is that you can and you are condemned if you promote hatred against Muslims the same way you are if promote hatred against Jews. There is the same condemnation for an attack on a mosque as there is for an attack on a synagogue,” he said.

Earlier in the day, Saudi Arabia's Ambassador to the UN, Abdullah al-Mouallimi, stressed the relationship between Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

“We have witnessed with growing concern the increase in hate crimes around the world, and we are very concerned because some arbitrarily reject their responsibilities in this regard,” al-Mouallimi said on behalf of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation. “Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia and all crimes that are based on religious hate are inextricably linked, they’re inseparable.”

Bernard Henri-Lévy, a controversial French philosopher who is ridiculed in France as much as he is respected, opened the summit on Thursday with an impassioned address, describing anti-Semitism as “the mother of all hates”.

Lévy said that "faulting the Jews is once again becoming the rallying cry of a new order of assassins, unless it is the same but cloaked in new habits”.

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