Center MPs want to strike off hate speech component of war insignia bill

Jaanus Karilaid (Center).
Jaanus Karilaid (Center). Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Center Party MPs do not support in its current form a draft bill which would allow a bar on the display of provocative symbols relating to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, principally on the grounds of online hate speech provisions included in the same bill, ETV news show 'Aktuaalne kaamera' (AK) reported Monday night.

Critics suggest the executive and legislature will fudge the issue, leaving the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) to have to pick up the pieces in enforcing legislation that does not clearly specify what hate speech or symbolism is and what it is not.

Jaanus Karilaid, Center's chief whip at the Riigikogu (pictured), said that if the bill needs to be enshrined into law before May 9 – "Victory Day" in Russia – then a provision concerning hate speech needs to be removed before the bill is voted on at the chamber.

"Otherwise, the bill will get stuck in parliament and get nowhere," Karilaid said.

"If there is the political will to move forward with this bill as a matter of urgency, it would be wise for the Reform Party to make compromises," he added.

Center is in coalition with Reform.

Justice minister Maris Lauri (Reform) said: "We sent our bill to the cabinet and it found support, including from the Center Party."

"The bill was also discussed by the parties' Riigikogu leadership. I assume that while not every member of the Center Party may have been aware [of the bill's provisions], the key people knew what was being carried out," Lauri continued.

Jaanus Karilaid said the problem had also been referred to the coalition council on Monday.

Since opposition parties Isamaa (12 seats) and the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE, 19 seats) do not support the bill in its current form, a split in the coalition could mean insufficient votes to reach the majority of 51 needed at the 101-seat Riigikogu.

The other opposition party, the Social Democratic Party (SDE), supports the justice ministry-drafted bill.

The section dealing with hate speech aims to alter the definition of incitement to hatred, so that such incidents can be prosecuted in the future, even if the incidents do not have immediate consequences such as presenting a danger to human life or well-being, or a danger to property.

Justice minister Lauri said of this particular provision that: "The last thing we need in society now is conflict. But such conflict is very much encouraged via social media. Our goal is for the police to have the opportunity to intervene in cases of the propagation of anger, hatred and lies, via misdemeanor proceedings."

Lauri added that the Riigikogu would assess all aspects of the bill, including concerns over the hate speech components: "Although I get the feeling that some people at the Riigikogu have personal issues. Their own personal, hostile speech may also be caught under this section, which may also be their reason for opposing it."

Lawyer and former state prosecutor Norman Aas finds that discussions on the banning of symbols should be held separately from those on hate speech, adding that the justice ministry's provision in the draft bill is too broadly worded, and hearkens back to an episode in 2005 whereby a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan "Kommarid ahju" (English: "Communists to the oven") worn at a football match by journalist Indrek Tarand, contributed to the resignation of then-defense minister Jaak Jõeruut. The slogan was caught by the provisions a law which remained in force until he following year.

Aas told AK that: "At present we have an acute problem in society, in the use of symbols of Russian aggression. In the shadow of the solution to this problem however lies another one, which has rolled on for the past 15 years. Firstly, this is not the most sensible [solution] and politically, I think, it is wrong, since it is shifting the focus of the discussion."

While public prosecutor Laura Aiaots finds that criminalizing symbols is a populist decision based on emotion, AK reported, Aas says the current wording is too vague to be adequately interpreted and enforced by PPA officials on the ground.

This included the status of publicly donning the orange-black Ribbon of St George, (which predates the invasion of Ukraine and in fact has its roots in the Tsarist era, compared with the notorious "Z" character, which only emerged in the current conflict – ed.).

"The Riigikogu could have the courage to say whether or not St. George's ribbons are okay nowadays, rather than leaving it to the PPA to decide," Aas said.

The government approved the bill last Thursday; the bill would amend the Penal Code and, given that May 9, marked by some Russian-speakers in Estonia, is just over a month away and given the situation in Ukraine, the drafting has been done as a matter of urgency.

The section of the bill dealing with hate speech is § 151, AK reported.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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