On 9 April 2018, the same date as Hitler’s Germany occupied Norway in 1940, three men from the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM) were caught hanging banners and swastika flags outside Gestapo’s previous HQ in Kristiansand in the south of Norway. The building is now the centre for peace and human rights.
In June this year the men were exonerated from any wrongdoing. The court of appeal deemed the actions not to fall under the penal code´s paragraph about hate speech- or action. The court decided that according to the law the actions were not aimed ´at a particular group´ [sic]. The prosecutor didn’t appeal to the supreme court and the decision has brought strong reactions especially from the Antirasistisk senter (centre for Anti-racism) who has brought the case to the attention of the UN´s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD).
Ervin Kohn from Antirasistisk senter noted that the verdict gave the green light for racism.
Debates about the limits of freedom of expression in liberal democracies are taking place globally. And the debate is particularly prominent in Norway where freedom of speech is seen to be the most important human right. Where to draw the line, however, between hate speech and freedom of expression seems very complicated for Norwegian politicians and media. Restrictions on freedom of speech and expression in Norway, are not, as Amnesty International puts it: ´set out in laws that must in turn be clear and concise so everyone can understand them´.
In the name of freedom of expression it is the norm that people with very extreme views have access to the media and the public space
Mainstream media, academics and lawyers tend to defend what seems to be clear incitements to hatred and hate speech in ways unthinkable by mainstream media outlets in the UK for example, but more in line with what you hear from the likes of Nigel Farage, Tommy Robinson and Boris Johnson.
In the name of freedom of expression it is the norm that people with very extreme views have access to the media and the public space. A most extreme example is the infamous ´Fjordman´ who inspired the terrorist who killed 77 people on 22 July 2011 in Norway. Fjordman has access to the mainstream newspapers and won a bursary in 2013 to write the book ´Witness to Madness´ about his experience with the Utøya terrorist. The funding came from a private foundation called ´Fritt Ord´ (´Free word´)* whose purpose is to support freedom of expression.
Fjordman blogged anonymously about Eurabia or the dangers of a Muslim takeover and dominance of Europe from 2005 until after the terror attacks in 2011 when he revealed his identity to the polioce. Fjordman who had been quoted several times in the terrorist´s manifesto and seen to have been of great influence, was not called to testify in the case against the 22/7 terrorist. The Guardian newspaper insinuated that this was thanks to lawyers paid for by the Middle East Forum which is a right-wing American group that also sponsored Tommy Robinson from the English Defence League in Britain.
Similar ideas flourish on the internet in Norway and globally where polarisation and rhetoric used in the public sphere makes it more difficult for minorities to participate and to have the same access to public life as the majority population. This often takes the form of self- censorship where public commentators and young politicians pull out of politics and the public debate. In Norway young politicians from all backgrounds are particularly exposed to hatred online but Muslims top the recipients of racism online and Jewish people and Sami are also exposed to the same kind of hatred.
It is encouraging that while harassment and racist hate- speech is rife online, there is broad support in the general public for anti-discrimination-, equality and inclusion work being led by the authorities, and for public resources to be allocated to this kind of work in Norway. But less than a third of the participants in a survey conducted by FAFO (the Institute for Labour and Social Research) said they agreed with fines and prison for hate speech, they thought exclusions from platform would be enough. They were more likely to support punishment if hatred was directed towards individuals rather than groups operating online.
In Norway young politicians from all backgrounds are particularly exposed to hatred online but Muslims top the recipients of racism
In an effort to discuss and examine conditions surrounding freedom of expression, the Minister of Culture and Equality Abid Raja presented a new committee set up by the previous minister Trine Skei Grande. But while the committee of 18 has members from a broad spectrum of society, it has been criticised for only having two members from ethnic minorities.
The committee will revise the current legal framework and suggest changes needed to meet challenges posed by the social media and the internet. Professor Ragna Aarli who co -wrote a report on freedom of speech and responsibilities in 2011 says there is more diversity in the public debate than before and that poses new challenges. It is much easier to spread hate speech now than in 2011 and it’s more difficult to get access to public documents than before due to automatization of processes. Aarli is concerned about new technology opening up more avenues to abuse the system.
Some critics worry about the conditions of freedom of speech and don’t think a new committee id necessary. Professor Emeritus of Media and Communication at the University of Oslo Helge Rønning who was a member of the previous committee on freedom of expression 1996-1999 says : ´That someone feels violated can´t make us put limitations on freedom of speech. That is dangerous´. The crux of the matter seems to be exactly that, ´freedom of expression´ and its position as a human right in Norwegian society fails to protect minorities as anyone seems to be able to do and say whatever they like.
In a recent report, the Police Security Service said that individual politicians at the national as well as the local level were at high risk of being attacked on social media. PST also warned that radical right extremists were as much of a risk to Norway as Islamists and that they see politicians as enemies and ´part of the problem´.
In this context, it is very worrying that the three men from the NRM were allowed to walk free in Kristiansand. In 2018, CERD raised concerns over right wing extremist- and neo- Nazi organisations in Norway who had a more visible presence in the media and on the street. CERD was also concerned about elected politicians using hate-speech and urged the government to introduce measures to improve awareness, education and prohibition of racist organisations in the country. In 2019, NRM split and for now it seems unlikely that they would muster any strong presence online or offline on their own, at least for the time being.
*Fritt Ord is also one of openDemocracy's own funders.