Police hate speech unit loses funding despite uptick in crime

A police unit established last year to combat online hate crime has now been defunded.

Image: Yle Uutisgrafiikka

A special police unit tasked with fighting hate speech online has had its funding shut down and its staff culled.

In 2017, Helsinki police established a crack team of specialists dedicated to combatting crimes such as online hate speech. However the the 10-cop group is now down to five staff members.

"This is the situation right now. Let's see where our resources can take us," says Jouni Niskanen, chief of the Helsinki team.

The cuts to staff are due to Parliament's decision to discontinue funding -- 1.26 million euros in 2017 – for the anti-hate speech programme. Inspector Måns Enqvist says the practice is common with new initiatives.

"When there's a shared sense of a critical need for action, extra funds always pop up," he says. "It's been a while now and we can consider how to go forward resource-wise."

Instead of receiving earmarked funding, police will in future decide for themselves how much of their budget will be spent on preventing and combating online hate crime.

"Each department makes its own budgets. The importance of this unit has not diminished," Enqvist says.

Incitement charges rise steeply

The sweeping cuts come at a time when incidents of unlawful hate speech have been rising. For instance, in 2016 the number of cases involving ethnic agitation was at 53; that figure nearly quadrupled to 195 cases by 2017.

Last year the hate speech police unit investigated 233 reports. Of these cases 118 were treated as incitement to racial hatred, and 10 cases were booked as violations of religious freedom. The rest of the hundred-odd cases were investigated as defamation (slander, libel) or illegal threats.

Police say that the increased monitoring has in itself lead to a jump in hate crime figures, due to the high frequency of online hatred.

"It's nothing short of an endless swamp," says Enqvist. "The number of these cases is directly proportional to the resources we have to dig them up."

One victim, multiple suspects

Some progress has been made, as police report that out of 233 cases 43 were prosecuted last year, and the number is climbing this year. The number of hate speech indictments has also increased.

The resource cuts have also been accompanied by a shift in assignments. The Helsinki team will handle incitement charges that have no single victim. Civil cases such as those involving slander or defamation will in future be investigated by local departments.

Officers have their work cut out for them: a single person targeted by an online attack may reveal with multiple suspects.

"For instance, a journalist who defends asylum seekers might receive hundreds of messages, that each need to be examined," says chief Niskanen. "That can be quite an undertaking."

In April editors of Finnish media organisations signed a joint letter demanding tougher action on hate speech after prosecutors announced no charges in the case of Rebekka Härkönen, a journalist who suffered death threats and abuse and eventually moved to a new city after writing about an asylum seeker who helped victims of last year's stabbing attack in Turku.