A large-scale action plan to counter hate speech and racism, which have “no place” in society, is in the pipeline, Interim Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès announced.
“More than ever, we need to realise that hate has no place in society,” Wilmès said, adding: “Free speech is sacred, but racism is not an opinion — it is a crime.”
The announcement follows a surge of racist comments posted online following a rescue operation launched after a boat carrying migrants capsized in the coastal town of De Panne.
Federal police launched an investigation into the online comments, which included messages like: “let them swim, it’s not far and we’ll get rid of them” and: “the most important thing is finding the boat.” The boat’s occupants are thought to have been attempting to reach Britain when their boat capsized.
Wilmès said that the government was currently drawing up an inter-federal plan to tackle racism, in order to live up to a commitment taken nearly two decades ago, De Standaard reports.
Plans to set up an inter-ministerial committee to fight racism are also set to be discussed by Belgium’s federal, regional and community governments during an upcoming meeting.
The comments prompted outrage among some elected officials, with the president of the Flemish socialist party referring to them as “sickening” and calling out politicians to speak out against them.
News of the police investigation also reignited a debate on whether these commenters were exercising their freedom of speech or breaking anti-discrimination laws.
According to these laws, insulting someone, in real life or online, is not illegal, but inciting violence and hatred is a punishable offence, with a 1981 anti-racism law making illegal certain acts motivated by racism or xenophobia.