A lawsuit filed against a Greek author and historian under Greece’s anti-racism legislation over claims she defamed Islam and incited violence via a comment in one of her articles is testing the boundaries between free speech and what could be considered offensive language.
Soti Triantafyllou is set to appear in court on July 21 on charges of using racist language in an article that included a quote, which she attributed to 13th-century Venetian traveler Marco Polo, that said, “The militant Muslim is the person who beheads the infidel, while the moderate Muslim holds the feet of the victim.”
The lawsuit, under Law 4285/2014, was brought by veteran human rights activist Panayote Dimitras, who heads the Greek Helsinki Monitor watchdog group and is in charge of the Racist Crimes Watch blog. In his suit, Dimitras claims that Triantafyllou could have confirmed, just by searching on the internet, that the quote is fake and was never uttered by Polo.
In addition to Triantafyllou’s article, Dimitras has allegedly reported more than 150 other texts or actions to the special prosecutor on racist crimes.
In comments made to Kathimerini English Edition, Triantafyllou described the lawsuit as “an indictment for blasphemy.” The plaintiff believes much more is at stake, but he will have a hard case to make.
Legal experts say that the author’s criticism of Islam needs to be read within the broader context of the article that led to her prosecution – and, more generally, her writings on the topic – and to be understood in light of the events that triggered her reaction.
The article, titled “Rock and Roll will Never Die,” was published in the free magazine Athens Voice in November 2015, the day after jihadi gunmen burst into the Bataclan music hall in Paris and killed 90 people during a series of terrorist attacks in the French capital.
In the same year, Triantafyllou published a book that criticized official multiculturalism for failing to successfully integrate Muslim minorities in Europe. In that book, the author attacks overzealous political correctness on the left of the ideological spectrum for smothering the debate on immigration and the threat of Islamic extremism. She has penned similar articles for several publications.
It is also important to note that the law on the basis of which Triantafyllou is being prosecuted establishes several preconditions that need to be met for its application. Specifically, it will have to be proven in court that the author acted with an intention to incite violence, hate or discrimination against Islam. Furthermore, it will have to be established that this was done in a way that endangered public order, or threatened human life and the physical integrity of individuals.
Dimitras, the man behind the lawsuit, feels Triantafyllou certainly crossed that line.
“According to international law, in the implementation of which Greece’s anti-racism law was introduced, she is not expressing an opinion but engaging in aggression threatening public order and committing incitement to hatred, which is also punishable under Greek law,” Dimitras told the newspaper.
“Freedom of expression exercised in an irresponsible manner through the use of racist speech is not protected by international law or by the Greek laws implementing the country’s international commitments,” he said.
Vassilis Tzevelekos, a senior lecturer in law at the University of Liverpool’s School of Law and Social Justice, is not convinced.
“I fail to see how Triantafyllou’s case could ever be seen as meeting these criteria. I honestly do not understand why the public prosecutor felt that she should be prosecuted,” said Tzevelekos, who specializes in international law and human rights protection.
“Hate speech laws are not designed to prosecute that type of speech,” he said.
The argument is that, regardless whether one agrees with the author on not, she targets a religion focusing on its political manifestations in the context of specific events. And these events – namely terrorist attacks carried out by Islamic militants – raise legitimate concerns as to the extent that they have cost human lives while impacting on public order, democracy and the enjoyment of fundamental human rights.
Another red flag, critics say, is that the lawsuit curtails free speech. An eventual conviction of the author, the argument goes, would amount to interference with her freedom of speech.
“The court will be expected to strike a balance between the aims pursued by Greece’s hate speech legislation and freedom of expression,” Tzevelekos said.
Critics of the law point out that the abstract wording of the Greek legislation offers no legal certainty, jeopardizes free speech and allows abuses.
“I see the prosecution against Triantafyllou as being abusive, in misalignment with the aims pursued by hate speech legislation and in conflict with her right to freely disseminate her ideas about a major political issue that concerns our democracy,” Tzevelekos said, speaking in reference to free speech and terrorism.
The prolific and outspoken Triantafyllou says that her enemies interpret the law in a way that constrains free speech which merely causes offense.
“I have time and again been disrespectful toward Islam. These days, you are not allowed to criticize Islam,” she said.
In her political writings, Triantafyllou styles herself as a champion of secular Enlightenment values which she sees as being under threat in Europe from intolerant outsiders and the cultural relativism of the multi-culti left. Her enemies denounce her ideas as thinly disguised racism.
“Muslims are presented as a humiliated and hapless minority. White knights who excel in finding victims defend them against so-called ‘racists,’” she said. “They are waging a war against freedom of speech and common sense.”
The Richter case
Triantafyllou is not the first high-profile target of the anti-racism law. Last year, a Greek court acquitted German historian Heinz Richter of charges that his 2013 book recounting the 1941 Battle of Crete denied Nazi war crimes and defamed the Cretan people.
The court ruled that the case not only lacked merit, but also that the article of the law that was cited was unconstitutional. In a rare move, the judge commented on his decision, saying that Article 2 of the anti-racism law was “incompatible with the Constitution and European law, and as such is ineffective and inapplicable.”
If the Greek court fails to protect Triantafyllou’s right to free speech, it looks like she will have a strong case against the Greek state. If she is convicted, Greek legislators and the judiciary interpreting the hate speech legislation could be found internationally liable for breaches of fundamental human rights law.
“The European Court of Human Rights has a rich case file on free speech that does not just cover information or ideas that are regarded as inoffensive, but also those that offend, shock and disturb,” Tzevelekos said.
As the case heads to court, both sides ironically claim to be fighting in defense of human rights.
Dimitras lashes out at his critics – the small but vociferous club of Greece’s liberal thinkers that have rallied in defense of the author – saying that they are simply favoring the free propagation of racist speech.
“It is they and not we who are obscurantists,” he said.
For her part, Triantafyllou responds that, in the name of stopping bigoted speech, her enemies are seeking to stop all constructive criticism.
“Race and religion are rolled into one. Blindness, social hatred, character assassination, abusive litigation culture: That’s what ‘political correctness’ ends up as,” she said. “But the disturbing truths won’t go away if we ignore them, embellish them or rename them using nice harmless euphemisms. They are here to stay until we face them.”