A protester holds a banner during an anti-racism rally in front of the Greek Parliament in Athens, March 22, 2014. Thousands of protesters participated in an anti-racism rally marking the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which is celebrated every year on March 21.

REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

One week after Greece passed new anti-racism legislation, officials are heatedly debating the law in the news. But, somehow, the debaters are missing two key points: first, what the bill really means for migrants, and second, that the bill’s provisions on hate speech may sacrifice free speech for little to gain in protection against hate crimes.

On the positive side, the new law increases minimum penalties for bias – or hate – crimes, where a person is targeted because of their race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation among other factors.

Before this bill, a 2008 statute creating racist motivation as an aggravating circumstance meant that hate motives were only considered at the sentencing stage of a trial, limiting the statute’s application. In fact, it was applied only once to date.

Under the new bill, bias motivation can be attached to any felony or misdemeanor in the Greek criminal code, which will hopefully make it more likely that police and prosecutors will investigate potential bias elements in a crime from the outset. Sentences under this new article cannot be suspended.

Also, the law rightly requires mandatory investigation for any crime that can be categorized as a hate crime. Additionally, in the past, hate-crime victims had to pay a €100 fee to file a complaint, a process that the new law thankfully scraps.

On the negative side, the new law’s phrasing fails to explicitly cover hate crimes in which bias motivation may be one among multiple motives.

Additionally, lawmakers could have gone one step further, taking the time to enshrine into law a June ministerial decree giving prosecutors the power to grant residence permits to undocumented victims and witnesses to felonies and other serious crimes, including hate crimes.

The law also raises concerns about undue interference with freedom of expression and association. It imposes among other things tougher criminal sanctions for incitement to hatred, discrimination, and violence, as well as participation in associations that “systematically seek” to engage in such incitement. It also criminalizes denial of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

Criminalizing speech that falls short of incitement to violence, however offensive it may be, can stifle open public debate, impact legitimate speech and often foment subversive movements that can claim to be unfairly targeted for their ideas. Instead of sanctioning speech, Greek authorities should counter hateful ideas through public debate, as well as through effective investigation and prosecution of racist violence.