Justice minister: Hate speech bill forward-looking piece of legislation

Kalle Laanet (Reform).
Kalle Laanet (Reform). Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Minister of Justice Kalle Laanet tells ERR in an interview that he cannot think of a single time from the last ten years when someone could have been punished based on the provisions of the government's incoming hate speech law. But the minister finds such a law might prove necessary in the future.

You have sent the hate speech bill to the government (from where it will move on to the Riigikogu to be passed – ed.). If the initial version of the bill sought to make punishable hate speech that poses a threat to public order, providing a definition of what was meant by it, the final version seems to only include that definition. In other words, it is punishable to incite hatred in a way that could considerably endanger public safety or be followed by an act or acts of violence. Why did you leave out public order?

It has caused some debate and boils down to a matter of taste between law enforcement organs. To have as common and clear a position as possible this final version constitutes a compromise.

The EU framework decision makes it possible to limit hate speech punishments to instances where public order has been threatened. Are we safe from European infringement proceedings if we take it out?

Our legal specialists believe we are.

What will become of [ongoing] infringement proceedings once we pass the law?

European legal experts will analyze our law to see whether it corresponds to the framework decision's conditions and either tell us we've done good or that we haven't.

What if it turns out we haven't done good?

Let's not get ahead of things. We'll go step by step. All of our legal experts agree that the Justice Ministry's version of the bill satisfies the framework decision's conditions.

Are we amending legislation to seek compliance with the framework decision or are we solving an actual problem in Estonia?

I would describe it as a forward-looking piece of legislation – looking at what has happened in Europe in recent years, where words have often been used as weapons, creating hybrid and general security threats.

I would give the example of the hybrid attack on Lithuania's border in 2021. Migrants were being sent there to obstruct border crossing. This created a conflict between people living close to the border, which escalated and came close to culminating in a change of government. This was a step by Russia, using Belarus, to test Lithuania's unity.

The past decade's dangers have been hybrid threats, created as a result of a series of steps. That is why I believe this law has a forward-looking component.

Were there calls for hatred, violence or discrimination against a group of persons where consequent violent acts or threats to public safety were perceived in Lithuania?

Yes, there was a serious row between people living close to the border. There were differences of opinion in terms of how to resolve the situation, and it posed a very real risk.

Do you know of an example from the past ten years in Estonia where someone could have been punished based on the provisions you're now proposing?

I gave this matter a lot of thought, tried to recall whether we've had something like that, but I couldn't recall such an example.

But do we really need the amendment in that case?

I would once more emphasize that it is a forward-looking law. Second, we have agreed in the EU to have an increasingly similar legal environment, where not just people, but trouble and problems also move between countries. We cannot look at it very narrowly in Estonian context.

The bill's explanatory memo specifies that it is actually unnecessary to prove acute danger was created to punish someone inciting hatred. The only thing that needs to be shown is that there was reason to believe an act of violence or deterioration of public safety could follow. Who then should decide whether there is reason to fear those things or not?

It requires concrete action. It means that a person or a group of persons must be making active calls in a public place or forum to incite hateful action against another group. It means that action following such calls is hot, that actions follow.

What is being urged must be on the verge of manifesting physically.

How should people making statements understand whether they might be on the verge of threatening public safety?

If a person makes it a goal to spread certain messages in society, they need to be aware of which messages, acts or incitement may be punishable.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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