“With regards to the situation of the Jews in Europe: the Muslims are continuing where Hitler left off. Only the same way we dealt with Hitler will change the situation.”
This was the tweet that got Danish People Party (DF) member and former MP Mogens Camre sentenced for racist and hateful speech last year, a verdict the Eastern High Court confirmed last month.
Camre was found guilty of breaching article 266b of the criminal code, commonly known as ‘the racism law’. Originally created in 1939 to protect Denmark’s Jewish population from “false rumours or accusations”, which could lead to persecution, it has recently become the crux of a debate on whether the state is going too far in regulating free expression.
In addition to Camre’s sentence, another man named Ole Flemming Nielsen was found guilty last month of comparing Islam to Nazism. The two cases sparked a national debate and now a majority in parliament wants to examine whether the law is being used effectively.
“We would like to look into the benefits and the downsides of the law. As it stands today, Denmark is a place where we can’t have a truly free debate, because some opinions are not permissable and I find that problematic,” DF justice spokesperson Peter Kofod Poulsen told Jyllands-Posten newspaper.
The proposal enjoys broad cross-aisle support, with the exception of the far-left Red-Green Alliance (Enhedslisten) and the centrist Social Liberal Party (Radikale). Explaining her support for the bill, SF’s justice spokesperson Lisbeth Bech Poulsen told Jyllands-Posten that its interpretation had become too “stretched” and that a discussion was needed.
Camre agrees with Poulsen and believes that the law has been misused and disproportionately aimed at certain views.
“The law keeps being expanded and understood more broadly. Views become criminalised and this is primarily the case for statements that can be interpreted as being critical of Muslim immigrants or Islamic culture,” he claims. “But many statements made by certain elements in society seem to get off scot-free.”
Camre believes that the law is used to pacify “Islamists” and argues that politicians are afraid of speaking critically due to recent terrorism attacks. Furthermore, he fears that, as it stands, the law could be interpreted to cover what is published in books as well.
“I have written four books and if the judges interpret the law in such a way, I might have to be more careful of what I write,” he says.
In a column for Berlingske newspaper, Jacob Mchangama, director of the legal affairs think tank Justitia, wrote that police are increasingly charging Danes with violating 266b. He argues that there needs to be a debate about how the law is applied, however, given that so much debate is moving from private circles to online social media services.
“We are confronted with two choices: either we charge everyone who makes statements that violate the law, even comments from ordinary citizens. This would mean a dramatic rise in the number of cases, but also a large degree of arbitrariness in terms of charging practices, given that the police and prosecution do not have the resources to investigate and charge all of the countless comments that are generated daily,” he wrote.
“Otherwise we need to consider a model in which we adapt to take ino account the dark side of the internet and social media – which has otherwise provided us with enromous opportunity,” he wrote, adding that it would be preferable for the authorities to focus on statements that are reminiscent of systematic propaganda, rather than spontaneous outbursts on social media.
Pernille Skipper, the deputy chairman of Enhedslisten, has a different view of the law. She maintains that it is a vital tool for fighting discrimination, rather than a discriminatory constraint.
“We have a number of fundamental freedoms that are essential to our democracy and one of them is the freedom of speech,” she says. “But we also have freedom of association, of assembly and the right not to be discriminated against due to race, religion or sexual orientation. And that is the right the article is meant to protect.”
According to Skipper, the law is needed to protect minorities from hate and discrimination and that the “slippery transition” from “words to actions” means that certain limitations on speech are necessary.
“Freedom of speech has never been absolute – like our other freedoms – and the racism law is not the only limitation. It is illegal to threaten people, to incite people to violence and to defame individuals. DF are big supporters of the defamation law and I sometimes wonder if their opposition to the racism law has less to do with freedom of speech and more to do with what they want to be able to say.”
A question of inclusion
Kashif Ahmad, chairman of the National Party (Nationalpartiet) and a Hvidøvre councilman (right), has had personal experience with the law. In 1998 he reported a teacher for racist remarks aimed at him and his brother.
“We were waiting for a friend when he called us ‘a bunch of monkeys’ that were unable to express themselves. The state claimed that it didn’t violate the racism law, but we appealed to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which ruled in our favour.”
Ahmad, who is a Muslim, says the law is a necessary tool in the fight against the sad prevalence of racism in society. Abolishing it would be a bad idea.
“Just two years ago me and a friend got a letter from FC Copenhagen that our tickets had been cancelled because we had ‘foreign sounding names’,” he says. “It is important to protect minorities from discrimination and if you are allowed to say what you want against them, then that becomes that much harder.”
He argues that the law is especially important in today’s tense climate when high profile individuals, such as Mogens Camre, make racial or prejudiced remarks in public.
“When you say that being a gay is a disease, or that all Muslims are rapists, it has an effect. At the moment, influential people can get away with saying terrible things because they hide behind freedom of speech. Maybe this is also a question of what kind of society we want to live in – if we want to have it based on respect and making people feel included, or not.” M