Opening statement

President, Honourable Members

Politicians have a responsibility to uphold European fundamental values of freedom, democracy and solidarity.

We have a responsibility to make sure that we have effective tools to address situations where the right to free expression is deliberately abused to promote violent extremism or discrimination against certain groups in society.

This is based on the set of values laid down in Article 2 of the Treaty: "The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities."

It is our collective duty to show that democracy is there for everyone.

Countering all expressions of discrimination, violence and intolerance is a priority for all of us. It requires a joint effort. The EU has increased its actions to prevent and fight against different forms of hate crime and hate speech.

The proliferation of hate speech online is shrinking the space for democratic discussions. When "toxic narratives" about migrants and religious minorities publicly incite hatred and violence, the thin line between hate speech and hate crime merges into one.

Where public incitement to violence and hatred is spread against groups or individuals on grounds of their race, ethnicity or religion, we have EU laws that criminalise these kinds of behaviour.

The Commission has engaged with social media operators to counter illegal online hate speech. In May 2016, IT companies (Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube) agreed a voluntary Code of Conduct with commitments to take action and tackle illegal online content that publicly incites violence and hatred.

We will present the results of this self-regulatory exercise next month.

The Commission's proposal to revise the Audiovisual Media Services Directive widens the definition of hate speech by referring to 'incitement to violence or hatred', and includes ethnic origin, belief, disability, age or sexual orientation.

It calls for a requirement for video-sharing platforms to protect people against incitement to violence or hatred.

The Commission is now assessing whether improved EU-wide procedures are needed for the removal of illegal content from online platforms.

We will announce our conclusions on 10 May this year as part of the mid-term review of the Digital Single Market.

Fake news - or simply "lies" - are also a serious problem. We are aware of the need to protect freedom of speech and to trust people's common sense.

But we also need to be aware of the possible negative effects of this phenomenon.

Promoting media literacy is vital, as is the need for quality journalism.

All journalists' codes of conduct include accuracy as one of their main requirements. Self-regulation and ethical standards play a very important role here.

Social media platforms and users are acting to expose fake news and unmask the source.

I also see global brands and media organisations deciding to move advertising money only to sites that are known to be free from harmful content. I welcome private sector initiatives to cut commercial funding of fake news sites.

Last November, First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, together with Commissioner Oettinger and Jourová, organised the European Commission's Annual Colloquium on Fundamental Rights.

This focused on media pluralism and democracy. It identified two main routes: ethical standards among those producing media and media literacy among those using it.

Lastly, the EU External Action Service has set up a task force on strategic communication to promote EU policies and a healthy media environment in the Eastern Partnership region.

Its key task is to improve the EU's capacity to forecast, address and respond to disinformation activities by external parties.

Preventing damaging effects of fake news is a challenge for all society.

It means that industry, civil society, academia and lawmakers need to continue their discussions on this problem so that we can better understand it and identify possible policy responses.

 

Closing statement

Extremism, fake news and hate speech are all closely connected. They challenge the values on which the EU is based. However, each requires a different policy response.

The concept of free speech protects not only that which we agree with - but also that which is critical or disturbing.

We need to address the spread of false information by improving media literacy and critical thinking, as well as by better communicating why democracy, the rule of law, protection of minorities and fundamental rights are key interests for everyone.

By contrast, illegal hate speech that incites violence or hatred based on race, ethnic or national origin, colour, religion is not protected by free speech. It is illegal.

The Commission will continue to make sure that EU law is enforced in the online as well as in the offline world.

In all these actions, we have to bear in mind that it is our responsibility to protect fundamental rights, freedom of expression in the European Union.

We have to believe in the common sense of our people. Once again, fake news is bad - but Ministry of Truth is even worse.

"You can fool all the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all the time. But you cannot fool all the people all the time". It was said already more than a century ago - but it is still valid today.

Thank you.