European Parliament Introduces Kill Switch to Cut 'Racist' Speeches
Press freedom organizations have raised concerns about censorship after Members of the European Parliament approved extraordinary measures to combat hate speech.
MEPs granted the parliament's president authority to pull the plug on live broadcasts of parliamentary debate in cases of racist speech or acts and to purge offending video or audio material from the online system.
Critics say the rules are vaguely worded and could be manipulated or used as a tool of censorship.
"This undermines the reliability of the Parliament's archives at a moment where the suspicion of 'fake news' and manipulation threatens the credibility of the media and the politicians," said Tom Weingaertner, president of the Brussels-based International Press Association.
The European Parliament is often the stage for political and sometimes nationalist theater.
Beyond routine shouting matches, members occasionally wear T-shirts splashed with slogans or unfurl banners. Flags adorn some lawmakers' desks.
But some MEPs say nationalist rhetoric has recently crossed the line of what is acceptable.
"There have been a growing number of cases of politicians saying things that are beyond the pale of normal parliamentary discussion and debate," said Richard Corbett, a British MEP who backed the new rule.
"What if this became not isolated incidents, but specific, where people could say: 'Hey, this is a fantastic platform. It's broad, it's live-streamed. It can be recorded and repeated. Let's use it for something more vociferous, more spectacular,'" he told The Associated Press.
Rule 165 of the parliament's rules of procedure allows the chair of debates to halt the live broadcast "in the case of defamatory, racist or xenophobic language or behavior by a member." The maximum fine for offenders would be around 9,000 euros ($9,500).
The new rule, which was not made public by the assemble until it was reported by Spain's La Vanguardia newspaper, offending material could be "deleted from the audiovisual record of proceedings," meaning citizens would never know it happened unless reporters were in the room.
Mr Weingaertner said the IPA was never consulted on that.
A technical note seen by the AP outlines a procedure for manually cutting off the video feed, stopping transmission on in-house TV monitors and breaking the satellite link to halt broadcast to the outside world.
A videotape in four languages would be kept running to serve as a legal record during the blackout. A more effective and permanent system was being sought.
It is also technically possible to introduce a safe-guard time delay so broadcasts appear a few seconds later. This means they could be interrupted before offending material is aired.
Critics say the system would be unwieldy and possibly ineffective.
Lawmakers have the right to speak in any of the European Union's 24 official languages. An offending act could well be over before Antonio Tajani, the assembly's president, even has a chance to hit the kill switch.
During a debate in December, Gerolf Annemans, an MEP from Vlaams Belang, Belgium's Flemish independence party, expressed concern that the rule "can be abused by those who have hysterical reactions to things that they qualify as racist, xenophobic, when people are just expressing politically incorrect views."
Helmut Scholz, from Germany's left-wing Die Linke party, said EU lawmakers are elected - indeed the EU parliament is the bloc's only popularly elected institution - and must be able to express their views about how Europe should work.
"You can't limit or deny this right," he said.
Cherry-picking excepts from debates could also be used to misrepresent events, he warned.
"If you are following the whole debate that is one thing, but if you have certain media who are taking out individual sentences you could falsify the whole issue," he said.
However, he said some tool was needed to crack down on the rare, but not unheard of, use of Nazi rallying cries and racist obscenities.
"We need an instrument against that, to take it out of the record, to stop distribution of such slogans, such ideas," Mr Scholz said.