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Hate speech against local politicians has "worsened significantly"  

Council of Europe leader calls for support for local media and emphasises the "major role" of local and regional authorities in tackling disinformation and hate.

A leading member of Europe's foremost human-rights organisation, the Council of Europe, has said that "fake news and hate speech" targeting local and regional elected representatives has "worsened significantly in recent years" in recent years, adding that efforts to counter disinformation should include support for local media.

Leendert Verbeek, President of the Council of Europe's Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, was speaking at a plenary session of the European Committee of the Regions a day after France's President Emmanuel Macron told the assembly of local and regional leaders that "the protection of our democracy and of our democracies against all forms of manipulation" is one of the great challenges facing the European Union.

Both men flagged up actions expected in in 2022. President Verbeek said that the Council of Europe's Congress of Local and Regional Authorities will in March present recommendations for fighting online fake news and hate speech in the local and regional context, while President Macron said that he would use France's six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union to advance the European Democracy Action Plan. President Macron put the spotlight on three aspects of the plan: one, the creation of a European mechanism to ensure the robustness of electoral systems, another to increase the transparency of political parties' finances, and, lastly, regulation of political advertising online.

President Verbeek of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities called for more regulation, saying: "If technology spreads disinformation, it should be tamed." He said, however, that "trust in fake news begins with the mistrust in public authorities and the information they provide. Rebuilding citizens’ confidence in the political system is therefore the only sustainable way to reverse the spread of disinformation. It must begin at the local level, in municipalities, towns and cities, for they are the glue of our societies."

Local and regional authorities could, he argued, "play a major role on all fronts in responding to this complex issue, using their proximity to citizens. They can do so by: engaging citizens and civil society in public debates and democratic participation, supporting grassroots initiatives and local media, raising public awareness as well as improving media literacy and access to reliable information overall."

He also drew attention to the challenge that the public faces in finding high-quality information about their cities and regions. "Local media, which has come under immense financial pressure in recent years, must also be actively supported financially by central and local authorities and institutions," he argued.

Vasco Cordeiro (PT/PES), First Vice-President of the European Committee of the Regions and member of the Azores Regional Parliament, stressed the particular importance of "strengthening media literacy and civic education", two elements brought to the fore in the CoR's opinion on the European Democracy Action Plan.

He said: "Addressing how to ensure a functioning and resilient democracy at all levels is crucial in view of one of the biggest threats of our modern times to democratic societies: disinformation. Local and regional authorities are well placed to play an active role in countering this threat. In elaborating effective measures to counter disinformation, we need to pay particular attention to strengthening media literacy and civic education. We will continue to advocate for a stronger role of cities and regions in empowering citizens against disinformation, and ensuring democratic resilience in the broadest sense. We are looking forward to continued cooperation with the Congress towards this goal."

In January 2019, a member of the European Committee of the Regions – Paweł Adamowicz, mayor of Gdańsk – fell victim of a hate crime, dying shortly after he was stabbed at a charity event. Addressing the CoR on 1 December 2021, President Macron celebrated the life and legacy of Mr Adamowicz, describing him as a "synonym of the fight against discrimination, against intolerance and hate, but also a synonym for promotion of liberty".


Andrew Gardner

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