In a first for Cyprus, on January 9 a woman was fined 800 euros for making racist comments online. Judging by the reaction one would think that she had disseminated Mein Kampf via Facebook.
Instead, the unidentified woman had called a couple idiots on Facebook for adopting an Asian child. Now, she sounds exactly like the type of person I would avoid at a party and the type of neighbour you probably wouldn’t answer the door to. But as far as arguments online go, I’m sure we’ve all seen much worse, distasteful though it was.
But an 800 euro fine for essentially voicing an opinion online is an incredibly dangerous precedent to set. What’s more alarming is that the definition of racism and xenophobia in legal terms has been set so low and broad.
Had she said something along the lines of ‘I will find out where you live and harm you’, then absolutely she should have been fined the full 20,000 euros and been sent to jail for five years, as it stands under Cypriot law. Had she posted to all her friends on Facebook ‘Come on people, let’s harass the family so that they move out of Cyprus’, then an equally harsh penalty should have been rained down upon her for incitement to violence.
Short of that, however, the law as it has been handed out does far more harm than good. It’s all well and good for someone to be punished for voicing an opinion that you don’t agree with, until you realise that being able to voice your opinion is the cornerstone of a free and open society.
Picture this: people protesting against police chanting: ‘Police, pigs, murderers!’ Almost everyone would, in my opinion, rightly say that what was chanted may be harsh and unconducive to a debate on public policy. But if a narrow definition of free speech is adopted, others could well turn around and claim that the protesters were inciting hatred and violence against the police. The government would then be able to act against people simply for voicing their opinion.
The anti-racist immigrant support group Kisa came out in favour of this week’s court ruling. Racism is certainly a major issue in Cyprus, which deeply impacts people’s lives. Yet it’s not hard to imagine, however, a situation where this supposedly anti-racism law could be turned against minorities. In fact, a minority group’s greatest strength is the power to speak freely and openly. Often, they do not have connections, money or power to stand up for themselves.
But what they do have, is the right to go online and argue their case. Imagine a Syrian refugee arrives in Cyprus. After two years of frustrating bureaucracy, he is denied asylum. The man takes to Facebook and posts: ‘These idiot Cypriots have refused me the right to asylum!’ Under the precedent set, the Syrian refugee could now potentially be fined 800 euros for racism and xenophobia against Cypriots.
There is much valid criticism for the state being corrupt. Handing over yet more powers to the government, especially threatening the right to free speech, is incredibly dangerous. It’s easy to applaud a woman being fined for racism. But those doing so can’t seem to understand that such laws will also be turned against themselves eventually.