A Ministry of Truth in the European Parliament?

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In January 2017, the EU Parliament amended its internal procedures, allowing the president of the session to interrupt live broadcasting of the session in case of “defamatory, racist or xenophobic language or behaviour” by a member. [European Parliament]

The live-streaming of European Parliament debates, established some years ago, was a real step towards more democratic participation and transparency. But the EU assembly is now apparently having second thoughts, writes Sophia Kuby.

Sophia Kuby is director of EU Advocacy at ADF International based in Brussels. ADF is an alliance-building legal organisation that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.

Every citizen interested in the debates and votes at the European Parliament can watch plenary sessions, committee meetings, and press conferences live over the Internet. However, in a recent decision, the European Parliament has put limits on what citizens are allowed to see.

The establishment of a live-stream some years ago was a real step towards more democratic participation and transparency. From anywhere in the world, citizens, NGOs, and other stakeholders could keep up to date on the parliamentary work of their democratically elected Members of the house. In a democratic society, citizens should be able to monitor the democratic process, and get in touch with their elected representatives if they wish to do so.

After a turbulent year where Brexit has shaken the very foundations of the European project, and President Trump has shown that the entire political establishment can be left by the wayside, the European Parliament seems to have become nervous.

In January 2017, Parliament amended Rule 165, one of the internal rules of procedure. The rule allows the president of a sitting to call any member to order “who disrupts the smooth conduct of the proceedings”. If the member continues, the presiding chair has the power to deny him or her the right to speak for the duration of the session. Such privileges of the chair of a parliamentary sitting, exercised sensibly, are not uncommon, and make sense in order to guarantee the normal functioning of parliamentary sittings.

However, the recent changes made to Rule 165 are much more sinister.

With immediate effect, the president of the session can not only call to order, temporarily deny the right to speak, or, in extreme cases, expel a member from the room, but the president may now interrupt live broadcasting of the session in case of “defamatory, racist or xenophobic language or behavior” by a member. Furthermore, the president may decide, “to delete from the audiovisual record of the proceedings” the parts in question.

With this amendment, Parliament introduces not only new powers for the President that have an effect far beyond the internal proceedings but also a new category of offence: defamatory, racist or xenophobic language or behaviour.

This raises some questions: first, what exactly is “defamatory, racist or xenophobic” speech? The term ‘xenophobia’ has proliferated in recent years and can mean many things that should be perfectly legitimate in a democratic debate. Will Members of Parliament be able to discuss European border protection, or immigration quotas, or the question how the EU should deal with those who do not adhere to a free democratic system?

Xenophobia means literally the ‘irrational fear of foreigners’. Just as we have seen with words like “Islamophobia” or “homophobia”, it is often employed when an opinion is voiced with which others do not agree. Even though some may argue that defamatory and racist speech may be a little easier to define, the real question that we must ask is: do citizens need to be protected from such speech by a nanny Parliament that has lost faith in it its citizens?

Who would not agree that such speech can be undesirable, unpleasant, or rude. But that’s not the point here. Parliament wants to interrupt the live stream and delete any trace of such speech from the electronic archives. This measure does not prevent any member from using “defamatory, racist or xenophobic” language. It does, however, exclude citizens from watching it. Surely, in a democratic society, we trust each citizen to form their own opinions on what they see and hear. The fact that the European Parliament deems it necessary to protect the citizen from such language is an indicator of the poor state of our democratic institutions.

The new rule 165 is a vote of no confidence against the 500 million EU citizens and it is one more step in a worrisome trend: the conviction that bad speech needs to be banned from the public. Not only does the vague language employed make employing such a ban necessarily selective, but it also rejects the age-old wisdom that the best response to bad speech, is more speech in reply.