Minister: PPA has no intention of curbing freedom to protest

The placard, on display at the pro-Palestine rally in Freedom Square, Tallinn, on November 5, reads
The placard, on display at the pro-Palestine rally in Freedom Square, Tallinn, on November 5, reads "From the river to the sea." Source: ERR

Conflicts can bring a different context to words, something which the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) personnel need to keep in mind, Minister of the Interior Lauri Läänemets (SDE) said.

This should not be conflated with freedom of speech issues or any desire or moves to curb free speech or the right to protest, the minister added.

Läänemets was making his comments in the context of last Sunday's rally in support of Palestine, held in Freedom Square (Vabaduse väljak), which saw five protesters removed over their use of the slogan "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free."

The issue has been clouded, for some, by the fact that this oft-seen shibboleth, while controversial, has not been uniformly defined in its meaning.

For instance, a Labour MP in the U.K., Andy McDonald, has been suspended for using similar phraseology in a speech at a pro-Palestinian rally, Qatari state-owned broadcaster Al Jazeera's English-language portal reports, while some interpretations of the phrase, in the current context, are that it represents an exhortation to commit genocide.

Other interpretations have it that it is a call for Palestinians to be able to live in peace and with equal rights, specifically in comparison with Israelis.

That the slogan rhymes in English, whereas it does not in Arabic, nor Estonian for that matter, has also been noted.

The interior minister said: "The PPA does not deal with ascertaining the substantive truth of the matter on the spot in demonstrations, but rather base their actions on security considerations and the rationale for ensuring public order; this in turn is based on what the organizer of an event themselves say."

"In the case of this specific event, the police also communicated with the organizers in advance and requested that certain messages not be used, as they may in today's context be taken to insult someone or to cause verbal conflicts, which can in turn further escalate into physical ones," the minister went on.

The PPA has no desire to curb free speech and did not do so on Sunday either, he said.

"I am aware that there has been some criticism on what the meaning is of that message which was on those posters, but this cannot be taken in isolation, so to speak, as you always have to look at the context too," Läänemets continued.

"I would give as an example how the meanings of words and symbols evolve over time, this – whereas four years ago, someone had walked around with a shirt with a capital 'Z' on it, onlookers would have thought that they were simply a fan of the movie 'Zorro,' but nowadays it is different," Läänemets continued, referring to the use of Roman alphabet characters, not found in the Cyrillic alphabet, by Russian columns as a means of unit identification, early on in Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Meanwhile a Ministry of Justice spokesperson told ERR that only the PPA, which falls under the interior ministry's remit, can state why it interpreted the above and other slogans in the way that it did, ie. as running counter to humanity, or not, as the case may be.

Maria-Elisa Tuulik, head of the ministry's public relations department, said that: "A slogan that may be contrary to the law in one context may not be so in another context," in effect echoing Läänemets' line.

"Room for interpretation is left to law enforcement agencies, which evaluate specific circumstances. It is also possible to contest their decisions, under Estonian law," she added.

Lauri Läänemets said that a blanket ban on rallies in support of Palestine and Palestinians, put in place in some European countries, for instance Germany (link in German), need not apply in Estonia.

"Certainly not. Why? Our position continues to be that we need to protect the opportunity to speak our minds, and we need to maintain that balance in society, so that people who are concerned about Israel can speak out, while people who are concerned about Israel in relation to concerns about what is happening with the Palestinians can also speak out," the minister said.

At the same time, the minister noted that the PPA takes into account the experiences of other countries when it comes to such rallies, including France, which, Läänemets said, ensures that any demonstration does not move towards potential conflict with one side or another, but instead fosters conditions for a substantive, public debate.

"And a substantive debate is the request of all the demonstrators," he added.

The PPA initiated proceedings against five people over their use of the phrase "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free," be it comprehensible when enunciated verbally, or in text on a placard, in any language.

The PPA took those individuals to a nearby police station, in order to commence proceedings.

Läänemets said, while the interaction had been cordial between the force and protesters, even when the latter were being politely asked to conceal or part-conceal placards, with the reasoning provided.

The minister added that he had no idea what the course and outcome of proceedings in respect of the five detained might be, adding that this was a matter for the PPA itself.

Läänemets said the organizers of Sunday's demonstration had stressed the importance as they saw it of drawing attention to the plight of Palestinians and the thousands of deaths in Gaza since the current conflict started a month ago; were this peaceful approach to devolve into provocative acts on the day, the focus on the demonstration and how it is viewed, and the ensuing societal debates, would also shift, he said.

Ultimately, the PPA's primary role when demonstrations are taking place is to protect and maintain constitutional rights for people to express their opinion.

"As a rule, the PPA does not impose any penalties for such activities, but rather talk to people and explain. Procedures are sometimes necessary to simply clarify the background," he added.

Delfi talked to one of the detainees (link in Estonian), Leore Klõšeiko, who says she was unaware when she came to attend Sunday's protest that the slogan "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free" had been banned, reiterating that in her eyes this meant a call for a free Palestine, not the destruction of Israel.

After a few hours of detention, she was told that instead of an expedited procedure, the case would be processed at length in order to ascertain all the circumstances, Delfi reports, adding that Klõšeiko could face a fine up to €1,200 or be detained for 30 days if convicted.

One of the less explicable images to have arisen from media coverage of Sunday's protest was that of an unnamed individual bearing a placard seemingly exhorting a deity to look favorably on Saddam Hussein, the former leader of Iraq, executed in December 2006.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mari Peegel

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