Germany Under Pressure To Crack Down On Anti-Refugee Hate Speech

Germans fear that increasing hate speech is leading to acts of violence.

Hate Speech in Germany
People hold up a mock hangman's gallows with a sign reading 'Reserved for Sigmar Gabriel' as they gather for an anti-immigration demonstration organised by rightwing movement Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (PEGIDA) in front of the Palace Church in Dresden, Germany October 12. Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

Update | German politicians and lawyers fear that an increase in anti-refugee hate speech on German social media and in public is violating the country's strict hate speech laws, as tensions continue to rise over the government's willingness to allow nearly 1.5 million asylum seekers to enter the country this year.

On Monday the anti-Islamic group PEGIDA, or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, held a rally in Dresden, which attracted an estimated 20,000 protesters. One protester showed up with mock gallows and nooses labelled for German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her deputy, Sigmar Gabriel. Later, speaking to the crowd, Akif Pirincci, a Turkish-German writer, said it was "unfortunate that the concentration camps are closed right now," in reference to what should be done about the influx of refugees, according to the New York Times. State prosecutors in Dresden are now investigating Pirincci's remarks, on suspicion of hate speech.

Under German law, anyone who makes a public comment that incites hatred or violence against a person on the grounds of ethnicity or religion can face up to three years in prison. Under the same law, a person can be imprisoned for attacking the "human dignity of a person or group of people by insulting that group." The government has also banned the swastika and other Nazi symbols and denying the holocaust is a criminal offence.

Several politicians and lawyers have called on social media companies such as Facebook to tackle hate speech, which they fear is becoming increasingly common online, fueling the outbursts seen at the PEGIDA rally.

One German lawyer, Chan-jo Jun, who specialises in information technology, this week filed criminal complaints against three German directors of Facebook and the managing director for northern Europe. He says he previously sent numerous emails and letters to the company's German branch demanding that they remove posts and comments that violate Germany's laws.

Some of the content that Jun flagged to Facebook is extremely graphic. One post, seen by Newsweek, shows the body of a small girl allegedly beheaded by Islamic State militants. Another shows the body of a decapitated man surrounded by severed heads. The pictures have been posted with accompanying comments accusing Merkel of inviting murderers to enter the country. Other postings contain Nazi symbols and comments calling on refugees to be sent to the gas chambers or be shot.

"Facebook is not obeying German law," Jun says, pointing out that just three of the 105 examples he discovered on Facebook and flagged up to the company have been removed at first notice. He's also concerned that Facebook is not respecting German hate crime laws: "Most people agree that Facebook should not import its legal system or values to Germany."

More worrying, however, is a hardening of attitudes in Germany towards the refugee crisis. "In the past there was a culture in Germany whereby you would not openly say you like the concept of concentration camps, for example, and there was a common understanding that you would not publicly call for the hanging of the chancellor or the vice-chancellor,"Jun says. "But this has changed, and I do believe the Internet has played a part in that." According to Jun, even humorous complaints against refugees are becoming more accepted.

A spokeswoman for prosecutors in Hamburg said on Monday it opened an investigation into Jun's complaints at the beginning of October. "The allegation is for incitement. More specifically, it is about Facebook's deleting practice and about how it deals with hate posts," the spokeswoman said, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Last month, Justice Minister Heiko Maas warned that Facebook must not "become a funfair for the far right", according to AFP. In response, Facebook representatives met Maas and pledged to combat racist hate speech, encourage "counter-speech" and to step up monitoring of anti-migrant comments and posts.

A spokesperson for Facebook told Newsweek that while the company will not comment on the status of a possible investigation, "it is important to note that there are several ways to report content on Facebook. Content such as hate speech, incitement or glorification of violence violates Facebook's community standards. Through our enhanced partnership with FSM and existing cooperation with organisations like Jugendschutz.net, people have additional levels of escalation to report their concerns. Reporting content to Facebook or to the FSM and Jugendschutz.net is, in our opinion, a far more solution-oriented approach."

In the meantime, some fear the uptick in hostile rhetoric is leading to acts of violence. On October 17, Henriette Reker, 58, a senior official responsible for welfare and migrants in Cologne, was stabbed several times in the neck as she campaigned to become mayor of the city. According to the federal prosecutor's office, her assailant wanted to "send a signal about what he sees as the ever increasing number of refugees admitted to the country."

Robert Kusche, a coordinator for the independent organisation RAA Sachsen, which provides counselling services for victims of hate crimes, says he and his colleagues are seeing a rise in acts of violence, which he says could be linked to the emergence of the PEGIDA movement and increased hate speech online.

Kusche explains that there is no independent monitoring for hate crime across the country, but according to government figures there were 990 attacks by right-wing extremists in 2014, a 23.6 percent increase from 2013. The number of xenophobic attacks was recorded as 512, the highest ever number according to the government's report. Kusche is convinced the figures for this year will be even higher. "We are seeing that now because of the change in discourse in society," he says. "We see that a lot of people are willing to use violence."

This article has been updated to include the response from Facebook.

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