While the Reform Party's intention of limiting freedom of speech might be aimed at reducing social conflict, it entails too many dangers. Every public and private conversation will be given a much more rigid frame, Cornelia Kangur and Karl Sander Kase write.
In December of 2015, several well-known singers sang the following lines on Eesti Televisioon (ETV):
"Only nature knows, as does the fatherland (possible reference to the Isamaa party – ed.)
that a nigger belongs in Africa.
We can tolerate them far away over there
along with all other species of animal."
Had Estonia the kind of hate speech legislation the Reform Party is now looking to introduce back in 2015, news coverage might have read something along the lines of:
"For actions that have publicly incited hatred against a group of persons based on race, bodily characteristics, origin and ethnic affiliation, activists demand the performers are imprisoned or the public broadcaster fined."
This is not an exaggeration. A few provocateurs or activists who refuse to consider the context or full message of the lyrics would be all it takes for such a scenario to manifest in reality.
The lines are from a socially critical sketch by the infamous "Tujurikkuja" comedy program from 2015 that referenced the refugee crisis and cases of xenophobia in Estonia and Europe.
The criticism was relevant at the time and the provocation helped bring it into the limelight. Could it have been done differently? Most definitely. Would it have gotten the same traction in society? Hardly.
Intolerant society built under the aegis of tolerance
While the Reform Party's intention of limiting freedom of speech might be aimed at reducing social conflict, it entails too many dangers. Every public and private conversation will be given a much more rigid frame. This concerns both ordinary people and artists, media publications and politicians.
Knowing that an allegedly inappropriate statement could result in a fine or prison sentence inevitably limits how people express themselves.
While this dividing line is especially thin when it comes to sensitive subjects. Those who were against immigration quotas were accused of racism and xenophobia during the refugee crisis. While people who supported the traditional family in the marriage definition debate were accused of homophobia.
Additional criminalization of hate speech will breed a cast of professional informers who will make it their mission to remove opinions and persons they dislike from the public. This phenomenon known as cancel culture will be state-sanctioned and work to reduce the number and quality of different opinions in society.
I doubt that the courts and the prosecution want a situation where they are forced to analyze the context and background of every statement. The result is the silencing of different opinions that will add to social tensions and erode trust in state institutions.
Efforts to censor speech and text are all the more unfortunate in a situation where democratic countries have gone to great length to protect freedom of speech in recent centuries. Free ideas and speech have given marginalized communities the chance to voice their positions even when they are unpopular or differ from the mainstream.
Good practice better than censorship
It has often been said over the last two years that words equal actions. In truth, words are but potential actions. How we use words and express ourselves shapes the Estonian society, while words only take on a physical form through action.
That is why it would be sensible to retain the current legal situation in which incitement of hatred is punishable if it poses a threat to the person's life, well-being or property. That is why we have launched a petition that supports retaining the current situation – one where the weight of words is measured through action or intent.
We believe that respectful communication is in the interests of the quality of public debate and the mental health of the Estonian society. Most members of our society proceeds based on that principle every day. It does not require official punitive measures.
If we want Estonia to be a respectful society full of different opinions, we need to make efforts every day, whereas people's attitudes and good practice are the only things that can help us.
Freedom of speech is among the greatest values of a democratic society and a fundamental human right we should desperately hold on to. If we want Estonia to really stand out in the world, let us make freedom of speech, media and the internet that beacon. Therefore, let us discard the hate speech law and make sure our freedoms are protected ourselves.
"Only nature knows, as does the fatherland -
that we need to help each other…"
(Jüri Leesment / Alo Matiisen – "Ei ole üksi ükski maa")
Editor: Marcus Turovski