Expecting a state that has failed to enforce a smoking ban in public places to penalize hate speech is wishful thinking. It should also be undesirable.
Keen to burnish their democratic credentials and to differentiate themselves from conservative New Democracy, the leader of Greece’s power-sharing administration, junior socialist partners PASOK and Democratic Left have pushed an anti-racism bill aimed at curbing a burgeoning wave of xenophobia in the debt-wracked country. The rise in hate speech and racially motivated crimes is widely associated with the rise of Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party controlling 18 seats in the 300-member House that wants to kick all immigrants out of the country.
The proposed legislation, drafted by Justice Minister Antonis Roupakiotis, who is supported by Democratic Left, aims to criminalize communication which might incite violence against groups and individuals based on their race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation. The bill reportedly foresees up to two years in jail for offenders and fines of up to about 30,000 euros for individuals and 200,000 euros for organizations.
There is no doubt that, unlike the more cynical policymakers out there, many advocates of the contentious bill are motivated by the best of intentions. However, as other European states have painfully found out, laws against hate speech come with hidden costs and unintended consequences.
A piece of legislation that caters to the needs and sensitivities of a particular section of society is by its nature exclusive and potentially open to criticism from others who are, or who may feel, vulnerable. Introducing a ban on Holocaust denial may, for example, prompt calls for prohibition of gulag-denying speech; or Muslim demands for measures against the defamation of Muhammad which – as Western governments were painfully reminded of in the 2006 Danish cartoon row – also includes depictions of the Prophet.
Put simply, what constitutes an offense is very much in the eye of the beholder. A victim of communism, to bring up a recent example, might sue Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek for suggesting in public that he would send anyone who does not support leftist SYRIZA to a gulag. Depending on the interpretation, even religious texts like the Quran or the Bible can be deemed unlawful. A ban on hate speech can be a stepping stone to curtailing the freedom of expression.
New Democracy has expressed objection to the bill, citing the fact that Greece has already had anti-incitement rules in place since 1979. This is true. Specifically, the law makes it illegal to incite discrimination, hate or violence against persons or groups on the basis of race, origin or religion – although it says nothing of sexual orientation. Also, the 1979 law stipulates it is a crime to set up or join organizations that promote racist propaganda and activity.
Nevertheless, New Democracy’s real concern seems to lie with the reaction from the more reactionary folk among its electoral base: the influential Orthodox Church and the armed forces. The party has proposed a bill, basically a revision of the 1979 law, that reportedly grants immunity to civil servants, as well as clerics and military officials. Meanwhile, the bill does not outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. New Democracy’s misguided motives are confirmed by its proposal to introduce penalties for Holocaust and genocide denial.
The main concern here is that taking action on “opinion crimes,” as it were – like sanctions against those who deny the genocide of Black Sea Greeks by the Ottoman Turks toward the end of the First World War, officially recognized as such only by Greece and Cyprus – inevitably leads to restrictions on free speech. In a sign of the inevitable deadlock, Turkey has passed the law in reverse, making it illegal to refer to mass killings of Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians as a “genocide.”
Laws against Holocaust denial were introduced in Germany and Austria after the Second World War and they made sense given these countries’ historical background. Interpretation of the past should be left with historians rather than lawmakers and prosecutors or you risk what Greek historian Antonis Liakos has called “political control over history.” Freedom of speech in an open society should include the right to question historical facts. Instead of banning uninformed and foolish ideas, it is better to expose them to scrutiny and ridicule.
And then, of course, there’s the elephant in the room. It is extremely unlikely that laws against genocide or Holocaust denial will deflate anti-Semitism or discourage people from joining the ranks of Golden Dawn. Such initiatives would most likely play into the hands of the party’s supposed anti-systemic profile and allow wrongheaded thugs to pose as martyrs. An all-out ban on the party would probably fail for the same reason.
After all, Golden Dawn’s discourse and deeds are well beyond a bill such as this and are well into the criminal law code. If the political system really wants to stop the neo-Nazis in our midst, it must start by doing what it failed to do in the case of the anti-smoking legislation: stop the political gesturing and enforce the law.