Non sequitur alert!

MediaWatchWatch has picked up a particularly idiotic quote from Hans-Gert Pottering, the President of the European Parliament who is:

against any cartoons that could instigate violence.

Pottering goes on to say:

We are committed to the freedom of the press but I am against publishing cartoons that hurt the feelings of others. As a Catholic, I would feel insulted if someone derides the Pope.

Does this mean that the President of the European Parliament is likely to issue death threats if he decides that someone has offended his religion? I think we should be told.

Balkenende wins EU solidarity over Fitna

Dutch Prime Minister, Jan-Peter Balkenende said that fellow national European leaders, meeting in Brussels for the spring EU summit, had offered his country broad solidarity should militant demonstrations take place in the Muslim world or in Europe in reaction to the release Geert Wilders Fitna.

The Dutch prime minister said he sensed broad agreement from other EU heads of government that they would act together to prevent violence from taking place if, as expected, Mr Wilders manages to have his film shown at some point this month.

At a meeting of fellow Christian Democrat leaders ahead of the summit, Mr Balkenende underlined that while the Dutch government does not support what may be contained in the film, it does nonetheless support Mr Wilders right to freedom of expression.

Danish liberal Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen strongly backed his colleague, saying the Netherlands can count on solidarity from other member states.

Even if we fundamentally disagree with the vision (of Wilders), that can never justify taking violent actions, said Mr Balkenende.

MEPs view net censorship as a trade barrier

The European parliament recently passed (via) a resolution to treat Internet censorship by repressive regimes as a trade barrier. The proposal, submitted by Jules Maaten of the Dutch liberal VVD, passed on 19th February by 571 votes to 38. Maaten describes it as an unusual, but effective way to promote freedom of expression on the Internet.

The initiative is aimed at countries – such as China – that have enforced heavy restrictions on what their citizens can say or see online.

The Great Chinese Firewall should be seen as an international trade barrier, Maaten said according to Livre. In addition to American companies like Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, European Internet companies like Wanadoo, Telecom Italia, and France Telecom have to unwillingly censor their services in authoritarian states.

The proposal now has to be considered by the European Council who can either adopt it or propose amendments back to the European Parliament. If adopted, the proposal would require the EU to classify any Internet censorship as a barrier to trade, and would require that the issue be raised in any trade negotiations.

Hirsi Ali to receive EU protection

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born former Dutch MP and target of death threats from Islamic fundamentalists is to receive EU protection.

Ms Hirsi Ali, who has been the subject of numerous death threats, has been under high level security since 2004 when Theo van Gogh was murdered by an Islamist extremist. A letter found on the Dutch film-makers body threatened her by name.

She left the Netherlands for the United States in May 2006 following a row over the details of her original asylum request for the Netherlands and, in October 2007, the Dutch government stopped paying for her security detail. The Dutch view was that since she was no longer in the country she was no longer their responsibility and the US position is that its government does not pay for personal protection of citizens.

Consequently, she has returned to Europe and, with the backing of several prominent French intellectuals, is seeking French citizenship. She also petitioned the European Parliament, calling on MEPs to set up an EU fund to pay for security for citizens facing death threats for what they have written or said.

On Thursday, Justice, freedom and security commissioner Franco Frattini said that EU member states are to draft special measures to guarantee freedom of movement across the Union for Ms Hirsi Ali and other individuals similarly targeted.

According to Mr Frattini, a unanimous decision on the matter was reached at a lunch of the EUs 27 justice ministers. Host countries will bear the cost of providing police protection and no new laws will be necessary to realise the move.

MEPs vote not to reveal how MEPs abuse allowances

The European Parliaments budgetary control committee has voted not to publish a report detailing abuses in the way some deputies use their monthly staff allowance. In the Tuesday morning session of the committee, the issue of whether to make the 92 page document public was raised, and voted down by 21 votes to 14.

UK Lib Dem MEP, Chris Davis called the decision ridiculous, and added that instead of being kept secret the document should be used as a manifesto for change.

There are no names of individuals in this report, no political parties or nationalities mentioned. Therefore, I do not see why EU citizens should not be allowed to see it, he said.

Danish MEP Jens-Peter Bonde from the Independence and Democracy group also called for the report to be made public, and gave some examples of its content.

This shows that the budgetary control committee wants to scrutinise us, but doesnt want to scrutinise its own affairs, Mr Bonde said after the vote.

The fact that there are crooks in the European parliament is not a scandal in itself, as they exist everywhere, Mr Bonde said.

The scandal is how you handle them. Then, it is bad image [for the European parliament], he added.

There are two versions of the report. The soft version - without names - is the one which MEPs are calling to be published. The one with names has been sent to the EUs anti-fraud body, OLAF which will probably ignore it.

Swedish Green MEP Carl Schlyter has used his right as an EU citizen to ask for authorisation to see the parliaments report and received a letter that his request is under process.

Any EU citizen is entitled to see any of the EU Parliaments documents on the condition that the document does not contain names or, if it does, that the citizen accepts that the names be taken out. You can contact the Parliament via its snappily named Correspondence with Citizens Unit

Council of Europe calls for religious free speech

The National Secular Society (via) reports that the Council of Europe passed a resolution last week calling on member states to repeal all laws relating to blasphemy. It also said that religious groups must accept that in a free society their activities and doctrines cannot be protected from criticism and open examination.

The only restrictions on public debate about religion should be dictated by public order concerns and incitement to hatred and violence, the Council resolved.

The resolution, which was passed with a large majority in Strasbourg, said that criticism of religious groups should be tolerated in democratic societies. However, the council put a limit on religious criticism and freedom of opinion: it was not allowed to incite hatred, disturb the public order or be targeted at members of religious groups.

According to NSS director, Keith Porteous Wood: “Freedom of expression is the bedrock of democracy, indeed of our civilisation. The Council of Europe stands out among international organisations in recognising the potential damage to freedom of expression from religion and not caving in to the huge pressure for massively extended blasphemy laws. If only the United Nations and, to a lesser extent, the European Union we are far-sighted in this respect.”

A freer market for ideas

After 18 months of negotiations, the EUs culture ministers agreed on Thursday to overhaul the blocs 18-year-old television rules to try to more closely reflect the fast-developing market.

Much of the focus has been on the loosening of the rules on product placement which is now permitted with restrictions but, more interestingly from the point of view of this blog, is that the TV Without Frontiers directive is to be the first EU law to apply the country of origin principle. Under this principle, broadcasters only haver to respect the rules of the country they are broadcasting from, not the country they are broadcasting to.

This means, of course, that the EUs more regulation happy states will (hopefully) find themselves being undermined by their more liberal neighbours.

EU compromises on religious hatred

After six years of heated political debate, EU member states are set to agree on a common anti-racism law, under which offenders will face up to three years in jail for stirring-up racial hatred or denying acts of genocide, such as the Holocaust.

The latest draft – cited by the Reuters news agency - foresees an EU-wide jail sentence of at least one to three years for publicly inciting to violence or hatred, directed against a group of persons or a member of such a group defined by reference to race, colour, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin.

According to the Reuters article, Britain has narrowed the scope of the legislation so that EU states are required to punish incitement to hatred against religion only if it is a pretext to incite hatred against a group or person because of national or ethnic origin, race or colour.

The pretext to incite clause is - I think - a good thing in that it should prevent religious groups from using the legislation to block any criticism of their activities although care will be needed as there is no consistently objective way of determining when something is a pretext for something else.

The same rules would also apply to people publicly condoning, denying, or grossly trivialising crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes as defined by international crime courts.

According to the Financial Times, this wording has been carefully chosen so that it covers denial of the Holocaust and the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Diplomats also stressed that the wording was designed to avoid criminalising comical plays or films about the Holocaust such as the Roberto Benignis Life is Beautiful.

The bill isnt in the bag yet, though. Poland and the Baltic states are still pushing for crimes under the Stalin regime in the former Soviet Union to also become part of the bills scope.

Update: Looking back at this post, my reaction has been a pragmatic - or unambitious - one that assumes that some sort of legislation will be pushed through and, therefore, the weaker it is and the more safeguards it has, the better. For a more principled reaction, go and read Jonathan Calder.

Germany revives hate debate

The German government is attempting to revive their proposal for an EU-wide minimum sentence for incitement to racial hatred and genocide denial and, not entirely surprisingly, a number of other states are trying to widen the scope of the proposals.

Estonia, Poland and Slovenia - all carrying the burden of a communist past - demand that denial of the crimes of totalitarian regimes, including communism, should be explicitly mentioned in the text, with one EU diplomat saying the aim is to achieve morally equal treatment of the crimes of the Nazis and communism.

The German initiative has also seen the Poles attempt to add-on a clause saying that using the phrase Polish death camps in the media should be banned, as it suggests Poles, not German Nazis, built and ran the camps on occupied Polish land.

This really highlights the problem with these types of laws. Everyone can find something with which to take offence - this is true both for individuals and nations (or, more accurately, individuals national pride).

One of the consequences of living in a free society is that people will say things that we find offensive - and we will undoubtedly offend others, often without realising it. When people forget this and start talking banning certain types of speech, it is tempting (at the very least) for everyone else to try to get their own points of touchiness included - and very difficult to reasonably refuse. If all of these requests are accommodated, the whole thing quickly snowballs so that anything that might offend anyone gets added to the list of unacceptable statements.

The German government are keen on giving a clear signal at the EU level of being ready to combat racism and xenophobia and this is a laudable aim. Using the legal system to make grand gestures, however, is not the way to achieve it.

Gamers scapegoated in Germany

German politicians are pushing new legislation that would ban games deemed violent or that incite hatred. And they are lobbying the European Union to impose continent-wide censorship of especially inflammatory games.

Some German officials are claiming that violent video games are linked to an increase in violence among the young. They cite an instance where a gamer went on a real-life murderous rampage and leap to the conclusion that by banning games they can prevent further violence - because no-one ever committed a crime before computer games existed, did they?

Germany already has some of the strictest video-game censorship laws in the Western world but the media and conservative politicians want to go further.

Frank Sliwka, chairman of Deutscher eSport-Bund, an electronic sports association that serves as a mouthpiece for the gamer community has accused the politicians of playing on voters fear and ignorance of the genre. While films have existed for over a century, video games are a comparatively new genre, and are not yet fully understood by the general public, he said.

Alexander Mueller, manager of SK Gaming, agrees. German politicians only look at gaming in one (way), Mueller said. When a (societal) problem occurs, it is easy to find just one argument and you then have someone to blame, and you dont have to go any deeper.

German politicians are also lobbying against video-games European Union. In January, Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble asked European justice and interior ministers to seek more pan-European restrictions on violent video-game titles.

A European Commission spokesman confirmed that EC officials are considering whether member states should regulate the production and distribution of certain violent games. EC ministers will convene in perhaps a month to decide what course of action to take, the spokesman said.