Strategies, cooperation and the fight for equal rights for all: towards concrete solutions for social inclusion and respect for human rights
In a time of growing recognition and struggle against social injustice, addressing the issues of marginalized groups is becoming a key topic in public discourse. In order to better shed light on this topic, we spoke with Tomislav Žigmanov, Minister for Human and Minority Rights and Social Dialogue. The Minister highlights the most important projects of the Ministry in the fight for the rights and inclusion of marginalized groups, as well as the challenges they face. It reveals how the Ministry cooperates with other state bodies and international organizations to improve the position of vulnerable groups in Serbia, and how they fight against the ubiquitous problem of hate speech.
Which projects would you single out as the most significant for improving the lives of marginalized groups that the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights and Social Dialogue is currently working on?
There are several types of action, with different program content, for the inclusion and integration of vulnerable social groups on the margins of our society. The most comprehensive and developed programs are those related to the Implementation Strategy for the Social Inclusion of Serbian Gypsy Men and Women in the Republic of Serbia from 2022 to 2030. The Strategy includes numerous activities, which are elaborated in the accompanying Action Plan for last year and this year, and include affirmative measures related to the support in education, through those relating to the availability of health care, social services, and the labour market, to the improvement of housing conditions. Of course, the implementation of most of the mentioned activities is not within the immediate competence of our Ministry, but in general, the Ministry of which I am the head is in charge of monitoring the implementation of the Strategy and reporting. On the other hand, there are parallel activities that improve the social position of other marginalized groups, which are often “invisible” to the institutions, and their problems go beyond the focus of the public. It is up to us, most often through the institute of social dialogue, to point out their specific problems and try to solve them, in a positive and institutionally appropriate way, through the measures of “binding actions.” In this regard, I would like to highlight the Ministry’s activities in solving the issue of persons in a situation of homelessness, then children in a street situation, persons with the challenge of post-penal resocialization, integration of young people who are no longer addicted, as well as persons with certain handicaps.
How does your Ministry cooperate with other ministries to jointly improve the position of vulnerable groups in Serbia?
The Ministry is more than aware that the issue of the inclusion of socially vulnerable groups or the integration of people with specific needs is always cross-sectoral. That is, its positive solution must be realized with the joint and synergistic action of a number of ministries, including local self-government bodies and competent institutions. Of course, nothing can be achieved if those directly affected are not involved, and the activities of civil society organizations are just as valuable. Only an approach that cohesively considers quality and timely action of each individual sector or institution can have positive outcomes. If such awareness guides us both in communication with other actors and in the planning and implementation of joint activities, our successes, that is, the success of the policies of the Government of the Republic of Serbia, is more certain and abundant.
The process of creating and implementing a whole set of activities in the fight against hate speech requires continuous work
To what extent do the funds and support of the European Union, the United Nations, and other international organizations help to improve the position and active inclusion of marginalized groups and raise awareness about the language of hate in everyday speech?
They are more than helpful on several levels. Firstly, through cooperation with numerous international organizations and the EU institutions by exchanging experience and mutual learning, we can more easily define the best solutions for the challenges we in Serbia face in specific situations. Other benefits concern more impactful effects and better results that we achieve in joint action – for example, the messages we send and the activities we undertake in the fight against hate speech have much stronger resonance. Last but not least, the benefits we have through their financial support, and primarily I mean the funds of the European Union and some of its members, as well as the United States of America, are often of crucial importance for the realization of our projects that achieve active social inclusion of socially marginalized groups, since it also requires more generous resources in the financial sense.
The International Day Against Hate Speech is an opportunity to highlight the importance of this problem. How does the ministry you lead plan to intensify its efforts to counter the spread of hate speech, especially in the context of modern communication technologies?
First of all, by constantly pointing out the presence, danger, and harmfulness of this social anomaly, which is becoming more widespread with the development of technologies and the pluralization of communication platforms on social networks, and thus harder to spot – it no longer resides only in “classic” spaces such as the media, at sports events or graffiti in public places. Today, it is most widespread on social networks, a space particularly difficult to control. At the same time, the process of creating and implementing a whole set of activities in the fight against hate speech requires continuous work, and representatives of civil society and professional organizations, primarily the media, must be included. And when it comes to target groups, the focus must be on young people and socially vulnerable groups because they are usually either targeted in hate speech or involved in its practices. Likewise, we must not forget that the previously mentioned existence and plural dynamics of hate speech should be accompanied by adequate normative “taming” in the form of constant adaptation of the legislative framework and the creation of assumptions for consistent application thereof.
The laws of the Republic of Serbia recognize and sanction hate speech, but the concept of hate speech remains a subject of debate, especially in the context of freedom of speech. How do you see this balance between the fight against hate speech and freedom of speech preservation?
Hate speech often subsumes under freedom of thought and expression, which is inaccurate because hate speech, unlike freedom of expression, has no limit in responsibility towards the dignity of another person’s personality and the responsibility towards society as a whole. The United Nations defines hate speech as any form of communication in speech, writing, or behaviour that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language against a person or group based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, origin, gender, or other personal property. Therefore, freedom of speech – complete and unquestionable yes, but we must never ever tolerate hate speech! Since hate speech always results in a social environment of intolerance towards minorities and sensitive social groups, it is a small step from spilling speech and attitudes into actions, such as hate crimes, discriminatory behaviour, and the like, especially. We should not lose sight of the fact that the presence of hate speech content in public also leads to the creation of a negative value system and the adoption of prejudices and stereotypes among young people from the youngest age, that is, the availability of the Internet to children and young people and the lack of effective mechanisms for eradicating hate speech on the Internet affects that children and young people adopt wrong attitudes more easily.
Freedom of speech – complete and unquestionable yes, but we must never ever tolerate hate speech
The Prevention and Protection Against Discrimination Strategy adopted by the Government of the Republic of Serbia covers the period of 2022 to 2030. Can you tell us more about the key measures envisaged in the Strategy to combat hate speech?
Hate speech is recognized and sanctioned by the legislation of the Republic of Serbia! Article 11 of the Law on Prohibition of Discrimination prohibits the expression of ideas, information, and opinions that incite discrimination, hatred, or violence against a person or group of persons due to their personal characteristics, in public newspapers and other publications, at gatherings and places accessible to the public, by writing or displaying messages or symbols, and in other ways. Other laws in the field of human rights also contain provisions that relate negatively to hate speech. That is a consequence of the starting value principle that states the diversity of identity is a measure of the personal and collective wealth of the Republic of Serbia and should not be a reason for animosity and conflicts! The Prevention and Protection Against Discrimination Strategy, it is clear, wants to fight hate speech as a socially unacceptable phenomenon to make it disappear from the social scene. That implies, on the one hand, to work to reduce stereotypes and prejudices towards groups that are at risk of discrimination through the affirmation and promotion of positive images in the public so as to change social understandings and values, as stated in the Strategy, and on the other hand, a whole series of different activities aimed at suppressing hate speech, primarily in the media, social networks and sports events, and initiating procedures for protection against hate speech.
The Ministry organizes meetings and campaigns directed against hate speech, with a targeted focus on groups that are particularly sensitive to discrimination. How do these campaigns contribute to spreading awareness about hate speech, and can you share some of the successes of these initiatives so far?
Each campaign will first point out the importance of a social phenomenon, be it positive or negative, especially if it is widespread. Second, if it is negative in its consequences, and hate speech certainly is, then the campaign highlights destructive actions and other harms to the good of society, presenting it in a negative manner, of course. Naturally, the most important messages in the campaign are the opposite of hate speech, which emphasise positive attitudes towards somebody and something different, and tolerance. It seems that the Ministry led a more than successful campaign this year with the UNDP Office in Serbia – the renowned “Color Media Communication” from Novi Sad carried out the production and overall implementation on the occasion of the International Day of Combating Hate Speech, which raised awareness among young people to condemn and suppress hate speech, and simultaneously strongly affirm positive social values. The highlight of those activities was a three-day conference of young people from all national communities in Serbia, who eventually adopted a joint Proclamation calling on everyone in society to be constantly engaged and actively fight against hate speech.
The diversity of identity is a measure of the personal and collective wealth of the Republic of Serbia
How does the ministry plan to fight against hate speech on social networks and in the media, given their increasing role in spreading this problem?
At the Ministry, we are conscious of that when it comes to effective prevention and suppression of hate speech in modern society, we must pay special attention to social networks and the media since they are the most widespread. At the same time, we start from the fact that it is not at all a harmless phenomenon for society as a whole because there are small steps from hate speech to other, more severe forms of discrimination. The improvement of mechanisms against hate speech also implies the improvement of policies and the legislative media framework. On the other hand, since new technologies allow users to more easily transmit messages, exchange and publish audio and video materials, it also enables faster distribution of messages containing hate speech compared to traditional media. Prevention and suppression of hate speech on the Internet, according to the letter of the Strategy, should be the responsibility of the Internet access provider, ISP (Internet Service Provider), then the content provider, telecommunication network provider, and broadcaster.
What are the key challenges in the fight against hate speech in Serbia, and how does the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights and Social Dialogue plan to overcome them in the coming period?
The challenges are not few, nor are they minor regarding the permanent elimination of this social scourge! But not only here, I am free to present some of the proposals that are also on the agenda of the Ministry. Namely, it would be necessary to work on the protocol adoption by public authorities for a unison and timely response to such cases, naturally with the urgent and appropriate action of the relevant institutions in the procedural sense: MUP, prosecutor’s office, judiciary. It would be good to establish and designate places for reporting cases of hate speech and support programs for victims of hate speech. In parallel, continuous campaigns should be conducted against hate speech and the promotion of zero tolerance for hate speech, with the diversity affirmation as the highest value of a society and its wealth. We should strengthen educative programs in formal and informal education about the absolute inadmissibility of hate speech. We should do this by creating coalitions/platforms with all social subjects in the fight against hate speech: joint activities, joint actions in the area of condemnation, reactions in cases of hate speech, joint activities in the area of promoting tolerance.