05 Jan Humour, Parody and Satire – Funny Things!
[Natalie Alkiviadou is a Senior Research Fellow at Justitia (Denmark) working on the Future of Free Speech Project.]
I like social media. I am an avid fan of free speech (I research it for a living). I also like humour, parody and satire. I like to laugh (especially in current times I think it’s good for one’s health). I also like to be informed through laughter. But that’s just me and something that happened a few days ago in my home country Cyprus really did target all those things I like and, more importantly, things that are so central for healthy people and democracies.
The story is as follows. In June 2020, Emily Yiolitis was appointed the Cypriot Minister of Justice and Public Order. In November 2020, a parody Twitter account was created entitled ‘Lady Emily Kardashian Duchess of Yiolou.’ (Yiolou being a village in Paphos) In the description of this account there is a direct reference to the fact that it is a parody account. The pinned tweet is a picture of the presidential palace entitled ‘Emily for President! 2023 will be ours! Socialites of all the world unite!’ Other tweets entitled ‘I have a dream’ includes a picture of a private jet with the label -Republic of Cyprus – Ministry of Justice.’ At the time of writing there are 1,576 followers.
On the 28th of December, a warrant was issued to search the home of the alleged owner of the parody account and was carried out by members of the Cyprus Police’s Office for Combatting Cybercrime. Whilst the Minister tweeted that she has no intention of commencing legal proceedings against the person in charge of the account and whilst the Cyprus Police notes that it was their decision to proceed with the issuance of a warrant, some media outlets report that it was the Minister herself who made the complaint. For me, it doesn’t really matter how it happened. The result is what has troubled me immensely these past couple of days. It is what prompted me to write this short blog post and remind everyone of the very importance of free speech in a functioning, liberal democracy but also set out an overview of the role of satire and parody as constructed by the European Court of Human Rights. The Duchess of Yiolou saga is not just about Cyprus or its Minister of Justice. It is a manifestation of the position of freedom of expression with the current digital age and the ‘polarizing dynamics of social media’ which is complicated further by the variation of human responses to humour. It is also, for the reasons discussed below, a chilling step in the direction of arbitrary encroachment of the right to freedom of expression, a phenomenon that is becoming all too common in current times (on a global scale).
Freedom of Expression – the very basic semantics
We learn a lot about Greece and Ancient Greece in (Greek) Cypriot schools (I won’t get into politics I promise). But I will use this fact to remind us all of Aristotle’s Rhetoric which supports free expression and particularly ‘robust public discourse as a means to promote citizen awareness and vigilance.’ (Eric Heinze, ‘Hate Speech and Democratic Citizenship’ (1st edn. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2016) 116). Further, in Ancient Greece, there was the concept of parrhesia with Foucault being one of the authors translating this into English as free speech. In addition to the concept of parrhesia, there was also isigoria which ‘describes the equal right of speech in a democracy.’ These two are central tenets of any democracy, we need to have free speech and that right needs to be equal amongst us. The significance of freedom of expression has been transposed into modern documents and jurisprudential decisions. Since 1976, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has underlined that the freedom of expression does not just extend to ideas that are ‘favourably received’, but also to those which ‘shock, offend and disturb’ because ‘such are the demands of that pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no democratic society.’ (Handyside v The United Kingdom) Further, General Comment 34 of the United Nations Human Rights Committee states that ‘freedom of opinion and freedom of expression are indispensable conditions for the full development of the person’ and such speech includes ‘deeply offensive speech.’
Humour, Satire, Parody?
In a tweet, the Minister noted that (although she would not commence legal proceedings) she did consider the parody account to go beyond the limits of satire. I would disagree for the reasons explained below.
Humour, particularly in the form of satire and parody, has, for time immemorial, been a popular tool for expressing and disseminating public opinion. Democritus, known as the ‘laughing philosopher,’ would ‘laugh at the stupidity of his fellow citizens.’ Terms such as humour and satire, are largely left undefined by courts, apart from one major exception referred to below. Satire is left undefined by the ECtHR, although in Vereinigung Bildender Künstler v. Austria (2007) it does note that such expression entails, inter alia, an exaggeration and distortion of reality. In Johan Deckmyn and Vrijheidsfonds VZW v Helena Vandersteen and Others (2014), the Court of Justice of the European Union held that the concept of ‘parody’ which is provided for by a European Directive on copyright, is an ‘autonomous concept of EU law.’ It noted that the meaning of parody should be its usual meaning in ‘everyday language,’ with its objective being ‘to evoke an existing work while being noticeably different from it, and, secondly, to constitute an expression of humour or mockery.’
The European Court of Human Rights
The right to hyperbolic and provocative language and speech is a central part of political speech and, in this light, polemical, sarcastic and satirical language is permitted. In Vereinigung Bildender Künstler v. Austria (2007), the applicant (an association of artists) held an exhibition which included the satirical painting ‘Apocalypse’ which featured members of the Austrian Freedom Party as well as Mother Teresa and an Austrian cardinal engaging in graphic sexual acts. One of the politicians who appeared in the painting filed a lawsuit against the association who held the exhibition. The applicant was fined and banned from displaying this painting. The ECtHR found a violation of Article 10 and emphasized that:
‘satire is a form of artistic expression and social commentary and, by its inherent features of exaggeration and distortion of reality, naturally aims to provoke and agitate. Accordingly, any interference with an artist’s right to such expression must be examined with particular care.’
The ECtHR followed this reasoning (and the nature of satire) in the case of Alves Da Silva v. Portugal (2009). Here, the applicant had been convicted and given a fine for driving around the city during carnival with a puppet representing the mayor of Mortágua, with symbols of corruption on the puppet and for playing a recording of a satirical message which suggested that the mayor had received illegal sums of money. The ECtHR found that Article 10 had been violated and that the applicant’s actions were clearly satirical and, thus, a form of artistic expression and social commentary. The Court followed a similar route in EON v France (2013). This case involved the applicant waving a small placard reading “Get lost, you sad prick” as the President’s party was about to pass by. He made an allusion to a phrase which the President had used when a farmer refused to shake his hand during an event earlier in the year. The applicant received a suspended fine of 30 Euros. In finding a violation of Article 10, the Court reiterated that satire is a form of artistic expression and social commentary which aim to provoke and agitate. Particular to this case, it noted that ‘by adopting an abrupt phrase that had been used by the President himself and had attracted extensive media coverage and widespread public comment, much of it humorous in tone, the applicant chose to express his criticism through the medium of irreverent satire.’ It proceeded to find that criminal penalties for conduct such as that of the applicant would have a ‘chilling effect on satirical forms of expression related to topical issues.’
In sum, we do not all share the same sense of humour. Some may be offended, some may not. Some may laugh, some may not. On an ECtHR level, when cases have involved public figures who cannot anyhow expect the same level of privacy as the rest of us, the Court has relied on the importance of satire as a form of artistic expression. In addition to that, the Court has underlined the chilling effect of criminal penalties on such issues. In this light, I hope that the Cypriot authorities reconsider their approach to the aforementioned Twitter account, embrace free speech in a substantive manner and re-assess their approach to satire/parody and humour, conforming to the position of the ECtHR. Times are bleak enough. Just let it be.