German sports joins forces against online hate speech

(L-R) Ronny Zimmermann, first Vice President of the German Football Association (DFB), Thomas Weikert, President of the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB), and Benjamin Krause, Senior Public Prosecutor, speak at the press conference of the German Football League (DFL), the DOSB, the DFB and the Frankfurt Public Prosecutor's Office at the DFB Campus under the motto "Sport together against hate speech". Arne Dedert/dpa

German sports is joining forces to protect its athletes against online hate speech and will take tough action against offenders, especially around upcoming big events such as the Euro 2024 football tournament and the Paris Olympics.

The German Football Federation (DFB), German Football League (DFL) and the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) said on Monday that they would report any cases to the Central Office for Combating Cybercrime (ZIT) with which they are cooperating.

The ZIT is part of the Frankfurt public prosecution office and decides whether criminal proceedings are launched or not.

"The associations will cooperate closely with the law enforcement authorities and consistently file criminal charges when violent, racist or discriminatory language is used," a joint statement said.

DFB vice-president Ronny Zimmermann said that "we have to make that clear time and time again that the internet is not a legal vacuum," and DFL managing director Marc Lenz named the initiative "an important social signal that goes beyond sport.

"When hate, agitation and false information are spread online in supposed anonymity and reach many people, this jeopardises our democracy and our fundamental values. We must support these at all times," Lenz added.

ZIT prosecutor Benjamin Krause said: "Our criminal law provides for severe penalties for insults, threats and incitement to hatred online in order to protect victims from such postings. This protection also applies to athletes who compete for Germany and are in the public eye."

According to the justice ministry there is no specific provision in the German Criminal Code that explicitly criminalizes hate speech.

But there are a number of standards that address the phenomenon and criminalize certain types of behaviour, including the offences of insulting, inciting hatred, rewarding and approving criminal offences, threatening and disturbing the public peace by threatening to commit criminal offences.

The big sports organizations, who have launched initiatives against online abuse of their own, urged state authorities to make it easier for athletes to take action against offenders.

Under current rules, athletes must file a written complaint for every posting on social media.

The DFB, DFL and DOSB called for a modification to allow criminal investigations without a filed complaint, similar to regulations installed in 2021 when politicians suffer online abuse.

The DOSB said that it will offer its Paris Games athletes an Artificial Intelligence (AI) based solution which can filter attacks on social media ahead of their publication and offers a chance to report grave violations to the ZIT.

"We will protect our athletes, not only, but especially during major sporting events where they are particularly in the spotlight. We do not accept group-related misanthropy, racist insults or even threats," DOSB president Thomas Weikert said.

Up to now, the ZIT has initiated 45 investigations into online hate speech in cooperation with the DFB. with Krause saying that 15 suspects have been "identified beyond doubt."