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Friday, May 24, 2024

Freedom introduces a verbal delict

By: Dr Matevž Tomšič

With the fact that the police fined the psychoanalyst and publicist Roman Vodeb a fine of 250 euros for the words he uttered in the Faktor show, where he allegedly insulted the President of the National Assembly Urška Klakočar Zupančič, a type of verbal delict is once again being introduced in Slovenia. It is an instrument that existed in the former Yugoslavia and allowed the prosecution of all those who were critical of the communist regime, its leaders, and the ideology on which it was based. This means that an individual could go to prison for several years just for a joke at the expense of “socio-political reality” or a teasing at the expense of one of the state party officials, uttered behind the bar of the village tavern.

Because of the words spoken, no one has to go to prison yet. And also, a big question is whether the said fine will survive appeal in the courts. But the situation is still very worrying. What is clearly happening is the instrumentalization of the police – and other law enforcement agencies – to deal with those who publicly express criticism of the current government. And obviously, the main protagonists of this reckoning are the highest holders of power. Namely, the President of the Parliament filed a complaint against Vodeb herself. This is the same politician who loudly claimed that she would always react when those in power “pick on” people. Well, now she is one of those repressive rulers.

Of course, insulting people – especially if it happens in public, through the mass media – is something undesirable. The widespread use of swear words and derogatory terms to indicate those whom someone does not like shows a low culture of communication. Therefore, in the rule of law, there are mechanisms that allow those who believe that their honour and good name have been harmed due to certain statements or records about them, to obtain satisfaction through the courts. It is a civil action institute available to all citizens, including public officials. And said head of the legislative branch could use it. But she preferred to act from a position of power and send her “offender” over to the police.

Politicians, especially those in power, should be aware that in a democracy they have a higher threshold of tolerance than ordinary citizens when it comes to the acceptance of words directed against them. This is a practice that has also been enforced by the European Court of Human Rights. This means that they must be able to calmly endure even some harsh or even rude labelling of their “character and work”.

Above all, with the aforementioned fine, the double standards used by the law enforcement authorities stand out the most. Someone could call Vodeb’s words offensive but given the level of communication in Slovenian public space, they were nothing special. So far, we have been able to witness insults, compared to which labelling Klakočar Zupančič as a “wild mare” comes off as downright benevolent. Let’s remember what the politicians from the previous ruling set were up against. Or how some “reputable” personalities from the left scene systematically insult and humiliate those who think differently. And it is not just insults, but sometimes also direct threats. Thus, at one protest, someone shouted “Kill Janša” at the top of his voice. But that was not enough to prosecute the perpetrator. That is why it is perverted that they are now treating Vodeb’s labelling of the President of the Parliament as some kind of threat to public order and peace.

Slurs, however unpleasant and unwelcome they may be, are an integral part of free speech. They are the price to pay for being able to express our views without fear. Even or especially those that are unpleasant for those in power. Therefore, restricting freedom of expression in the name of “political correctness” is something that is significantly more dangerous than coarse and rude words. The current government, which supposedly puts freedom first, but actually suppresses it, is trying to make itself untouchable.


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