The hate speech bill was submitted to the Riigikogu for its first reading last week. Should it be passed into law, incitement to hatred will be classified a punishable criminal offense — the most serious category thereof — which could also entail prison time. "Aktuaalne kaamera. Nädal," the Sunday evening edition of Estonia's nightly news, took a closer look at whether Estonia needs such a law, as well as what it may entail.
There has been an increasing number of cases in recent years where people unhappy with the way they've been portrayed in the media have lodged monetary claims against journalists or else threatened to sue. Often all it takes is a seemingly offensive figure of speech or comparison. However, this is nothing new. Top journalists Urmas Ott and Enno Tammer, for example, were convicted for this in a court of law decades ago.
"It's already very easy to sue media publications and journalists," acknowledged Delfi journalist Vilja Kiisler. "Since the time I was writing editorials myself, I'd gotten used to — and am still used to — the feeling of constantly having an axe at the back of my head."
Journalists already have to ensure that their work is legally bulletproof. At the same time, however, they themselves remain unprotected from disparagement and libel. Especially those writing about socially polarizing topics.
"If you check out the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) portal Uued Uudised, for example, then they wrote an awful lot about me while they were in power," Kiisler recalled. "And at the time it was also common for a lot of EKRE's political supporters to address journalists, including me, personally. I received rape and death threats too."
Hate speech is already prohibited by law, however it currently isn't punishable as a criminal offense. At her colleagues' urging, Kiisler went to the police.
"As there was no real threat to my life or health, as the police determined — and I likewise believe there wasn't; no one literally showed up at my window — then nothing was done about it," she said.
Confirming Kiisler's experience, attorney Karmen Turk said that the current burden of proof is in fact so high that its practical implementation is all but impossible. Which is why convictions can be counted on the fingers of just one hand.
"This requires that a threat has been realized to one's life or health, or that these rights have already been clearly violated," Turk explained. "At the time we had a detention center for foreigners, and at some point one summer, some people involved with bikers issued a call: 'let's go there, let's do something!' And even that wasn't enough because that threat wasn't ultimately realized."
Therefore, the law needs to be changed anyway. And over the last 20 years, there have been many unsuccessful attempts to do so. Critics question whether free speech will be restricted with the passing of the hate speech law.
"Speaking angrily is in no way banned," said Minister of Justice Kalle Laanet (Reform). "Speaking emotionally is in no way banned — only undermining societal cohesion and of course thus also national security."
According to Laanet, whether the words "Ya Russkiy" displayed on a car, for example, will be considered an incitement to hatred and punishable as a criminal offense under the new bill depends significantly on what the intent is behind using them. "Whether the average Estonian could take this to incite interethnic hate," he added.
Turk believes that the use of such phrases can produce a sense of threat in society.
"I think it's enough just to see that one meme where 'Ya Russkiy' is written on a windshield and there's a brick in the air that says 'Ya Estonskiy,'" she said. Which of these poses a danger to society with their actions, however, is difficult to say, she added.
"Hate speech and angry speech — it's distinguishing between these two that's extremely complex," Turk acknowledged.
Journalists themselves can suddenly find themselves on the other side of the law as well, as seen in a case in Denmark in which a documentary series was produced about the Nazi group Greenjackets that was aired by Denmark's public broadcaster.
"They talked on air about how dark-skinned people aren't fit for society there, how dark-skinned people aren't even human," Turk recalled. "And how something similar to the Ku Klux Klan in America should be reestablished. The journalist was found guilty [in Denmark] — spreading hate speech. Across all instances."
The journalist was only cleared in the European Court of Human Rights, where they were only spared thanks to just one nuance.
"That so long as the journalist themselves aren't of the position of, 'Jesus what a good idea, of course we should found the Ku Klux Klan!' then the journalist is reporting information, and that is what they have to do, even if the information they're reporting is hate speech," Turk said.
But similar tricky spots can be found in Estonia's hate speech bill as well.
"It's stated in the bill's letter of explanation that as long as the journalist is conveying this information but clearly also condemning it, then the journalist is not responsible for this so-called hate speech," the attorney explained. "I maintain, however, that a journalist doesn't necessarily always have to take a position and state afterward that 'No, I do not agree.' A journalist's job is to convey information."
Turk nonetheless finds the hate speech law necessary in principle, however only in the case of group incitement; she would rather leave individuals out of this section of the law. Instead, she sees the need to ensure better legal protection from attacks for journalists as well as victims of cyberbullying.
"The Prosecutor's Office is unable to process these, because it knows how difficult it is to take them to court," she acknowledged. "I believe that that is what would actually be a constructive debate in society, in addition to this bill itself."
Editor: Aili Vahtla