The line between freedom of speech and combating hate speech is extremely fine and a delicate balance needs to be maintained, attorney-general Costas Clerides said on Wednesday.
He was referring to Akel leader Andros Kyprianou’s allegations that he was on the receiving end of hate speech, both during last Friday’s plenary session at the House of Representatives and on social media.
During the plenum, which had been discussing a legislative proposal effectively reversing an earlier decision for a brief commemoration of the 1950 Enosis (union with Greece) referendum in state schools, MPs of the proposal’s sponsor Disy and backers Akel were variously called traitors and booed by dissenting public in the room.
Exiting parliament later, Kyprianou was subjected to verbal abuse by an angry mob of far-right Elam supporters, prompting his letter to Clerides.
“In such cases there must be a balance between freedom of speech and the law banning abuse,” the AG told state radio.
“There have always been clauses in various laws that could ostensibly make such behaviours illegal, but in 2011 a law was passed specifically to combat racism and xenophobia through criminalisation.”
The law created various offences, such as inciting violence or hatred against a group, or a member of a group, Clerides said.
“It is an extremely delicate balance to keep,” he said.
“I would say we are moving in uncharted territory, in that there is no legal precedent. However, the task is on the one hand to avoid criminalising politics but on the other to not allow such instances to take place.”
Kyprianou’s letter on Monday was followed by the announcement by Elam and the Solidarity movement, which also opposed the contentious proposal backed by the two big parties, that they in turn would report Akel to the AG for hate speech.
“At present I have received only a letter from Akel’s secretary-general, in which there are no references to particular incidents but a general appeal to implement the law,” Clerides said.
“I understand, however, that specific references have been given in a statement he has given police.”
On instructions by police chief Zacharias Chrysostomou, an investigation into the goings-on outside parliament was opened on Monday.
But grappling with the legal concepts involved is likely to prove tricky, Clerides acknowledged.
“I would have to examine under what conditions it was said – the law doesn’t specify what words are forbidden, it lays down some general principles,” he said, addressing a hypothetical situation where someone had called him a traitor.
Akel MP Aristos Damianou disagreed that the territory on hate speech is completely uncharted.
“Internationally, charting the territory has begun,” he said.
“Freedom of speech ends where racist, fascist, xenophobic speech starts. We can draw on international experience.”
Later on Wednesday, the Solidarity movement announced it had sent a letter to Clerides, citing instances in which Kyprianou had actually been the one to employ hate speech.
In a speech on Sunday, Kyprianou had referred to rejectionist parties as having “fascist feelings” and “rotten minds”, leader Eleni Theocharous said in the letter.
“In the tumultuous plenary session last Friday, referring to opposition parties, Kyprianou said ‘we want to throw [Turkish Cypriots] in the sea, leaving only Greeks’, and that ‘all you care about is the presidential election’, while Akel MP Yiorgos Loukaides said ‘you are Goebbelists’, and MP Yiorgos Georgiou told some of his colleagues ‘you are hoodlums’,” Theocharous said.
“Exiting parliament, Andros Kyprianou was caught on video provoking demonstrators by saying ‘let me go toward them’, in order to instigate violence.”