Western Europe cracks down on racially charged harassment of government officials

By: Sara Adams
Impunity Watch News Reporter, Europe

Sylvana Simons speaks to the public about her newest book in March. Image courtesy of the Associated Press.

In Italy, a member of the European Parliament was ordered to pay $55,670 in damages to another member of the Parliament, Cecile Kyenge. Ms. Kyenge is Italy’s first black minister, born in the Congo but educated as an ophthalmologist in Italy. Her harasser, Mario Borghezio, had said in a 2013 radio interview that  Ms. Kyenge had “[taken] away a job from an Italian doctor” and that he did not want her to “impose her tribal traditions from the Congo” on Italians.

Before deciding to press charges against Mr. Borghezio, Ms. Kyenge had been given police protection after being physically harassed at a political rally. At the rally, she had bananas thrown at her and was compared to an orangutan by the harassers.

This ruling came at the same time as 20 people in The Netherlands were convicted of online racial and sexist hate speech. Sylvana Simons is a black politician and media personality who had received harassing comments from thousands of people on the internet. Ms. Simons was born in Suriname but raised in the Netherlands. One of her harassers had photo-shopped her face onto a picture of a Ku Klux Klan lynching.

Mr. Borghezio believed that his remarks about Ms. Kyenge were within his rights as a lawmaker to criticize a government minister. He felt as if he was being “politically prosecuted”.

In the Netherlands, four of the 20 convicted were charged with community service while the rest were fined $165 to $500 for their behavior.

Though free speech is valued in both countries, the Dutch court said that when the opinion is an “insult, threat, riot, or discrimination, there is a criminal offense.”

Ms. Kyenge, like Ms. Simons, hope that this verdict will show that racist harassment won’t be tolerated by her country. The Dutch court said they hope that this will deter people from engaging in harassing behavior in the future.

These stories come at a time where right-wing populism is on the rise, bringing with it the resentment of political correctness, or the “culture of tolerance”. It is left unclear whether the decisions by these courts really will prevent future cases of hate speech and defamation.

For more information, please see: 

New York Times – 20 Are Convicted for Sexist and Racist Abuse of Dutch Politician – 18 May 2017

BBC News – Italy’s first black minister ‘vindicated’ by racist slurs verdict – 19 May 2017

New York Times – Italian in Europe’s Parliament Convicted of Defamation for Racial Insult – 19 May 2017

BBC News – Dutch race hate row engulfs presenter Sylvana Simons – 25 November 2016

Aljazeera – Sylvana Simons: Racism is accepted in the Netherlands – 18 January 2017


Author: Sara Adams

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