Anthony Faiola, Washington Post, January 6, 2016
Donald Trump may be testing the boundaries of tolerance on the U.S. campaign trail. But here in Germany, the government is effectively enforcing civility, taking aim at a surge of hate speech against refugees and Muslims.
As Western Europe’s most populous nation grapples with a historic wave of mostly-Muslim migrants, politicians and activists are decrying a rash of incendiary speech bubbling to the surface of German society. In a country whose Nazi past led to some of the strictest laws in the West protecting minorities from people inciting hatred, prosecutors are launching investigations into inflammatory comments as judges dole out fines, even probation time, to the worst offenders.
German authorities, meanwhile, have reached a deal with Facebook, Google and Twitter to get tougher on offensive content, with the outlets agreeing to apply domestic laws, rather than their own corporate policies, to reviews of posts.
Critics call it the enforcement of political correctness, raising the question of what constitutes hate speech and sparking a national debate over free expression. Germans have been outraged, for instance, by reports of more than 100 sexual assaults and robberies in the city of Cologne allegedly committed by gangs of young Arab and North African men on New Year’s Eve. Some Germans are questioning whether their online comments could be taken down, or whether they could be charged with incitement, for publicly pondering whether refugees could have been among the assailants.
Stefan Körner, chairman of Germany’s liberal Pirate Party, argued that democracies “must be able to bear” a measure of xenophobia. He condemned the government’s deal with social media outlets to get tougher on offensive speech, saying that “surely it will lead to too many rather than too few comments being blocked. This is creeping censorship, and we definitely don’t want that.”
It remains unclear how aggressive social media sites are being–some highly offensive posts in German have indeed been quickly removed from Facebook in recent days while others have lingered online for days. Yet the push here happens as a country with a built-in sensitivity to provocative speech has seen a decidedly fiercer public discourse as more than 1 million asylum seekers and migrants crossed Germany’s border last year.
The surge of incendiary comments online has been so strong that one of Germany’s largest media outlets, Der Spiegel, disabled its readers’ comment function for articles related to refugees.
Harsh comments are earning some Germans more than scorn. In the town of Wismar in northeastern Germany, for instance, a judge in October sentenced a 26-year-old man to five months probation and a 300 euro fine after the man had posted on his Facebook page that refugees should “burn alive” or “drown” in the Mediterranean.
In September, the home of a 26-year-old Berlin man was raided by police, who confiscated his computer and phones after he had posted the tragic image of the dead 3-year-old Syrian boy whose body on a Turkish beach became a symbol of the refugee crisis. Along with the photo, he had posted: “We are not mourning, we are celebrating!”
A 29-year-old Berlin woman, meanwhile, received five months probation in July after she had posted comments on Facebook about an alleged rape of a German woman by an asylum seeker. “Filth out!” she wrote, arguing that if tougher measures against refugees were not deployed, “more asylum seekers’ homes will burn.”
In Germany, a person can face incitement charges for comments aimed at creating hostile feelings or triggering violence against a particular race, religion or ethnicity. To publicly endorse, play down or justify the crimes of the Nazi regime can be punished with up to five years in prison.