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Racist comments online: what is the law?

The Federal Police have launched an investigation, at the request of the Flanders Public Prosecutor’s Office, into racist comments. Credit: Pexels

Politicians and citizens alike have condemned the racist comments on Facebook after a boat carrying migrants capsized close to Belgium, reopening the debate on whether or not these comments are illegal.

The Federal Police have launched an investigation, at the request of the Flanders Public Prosecutor’s Office, into racist comments like “let them swim, it’s not far and we’ll get rid of them” and “the most important thing is finding the boat” that appeared, after search and rescue operations were launched to find the boat’s occupants.

Translation of tweet by President of socialist SP.a party: “The dehumanisation continues. It’s sickening. These are real people. How far are we going to let this go? HOW FAR? Have we learned nothing from the past? Politicians, no matter what party you are from, make your voices heard.”

However, are these comments punishable by law, or do they fall under the article that guarantees “the freedom to express one’s opinions in all matters” in the Belgian Constitution?

Insulting someone, in real life or online, is not illegal, but inciting violence and hatred is punishable based on the anti-discrimination laws.

“As far as hate speech is concerned, it is always a challenge to determine where the boundary lies between ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘incitement to hatred and violence’. There is a grey zone there that is guarded by the social debate and the reaction of society,” said Bart Somers, the Flemish Minister for Living Together, reports VRT. “In our constitutional state, the judge determines if something is a crime, and that’s a good thing,” he added.

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The Belgian Anti-Racism Law, also known as the Moureaux Law, as it was proposed by then-Minister for Justice Philippe Moureaux, was implemented on 30 July 1981 and made certain acts motivated by racism or xenophobia illegal.

In 1995, the Holocaust denial law, a law tending to repress negation, minimization, justification or approbation of the genocide committed by the German National-Socialist regime during the Second World War, was introduced.

In 2007, the Anti-Discrimination Act was implemented, which extended the scope of validity of the 1981 Moureaux Law. The extension made (incitement to) discrimination, hatred or violence on the grounds of age, sexual orientation, civil status, birth, wealth, religious or philosophical conviction, political conviction, language, current or future state of health, disability, physical or genetic characteristics, family background and financial status illegal.

Unia, the centre of equal opportunities in Belgium, makes it clear on its website that since these laws apply to “public life”, they also apply “online”.

Maïthé Chini
The Brussels Times

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