Portuguese speaker defends lawmaker's race remarks as free speech

Far right political party Chega leader Andre Ventura talks to the press after meeting with Portugal President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa in Belem Palace

By Catarina Demony

LISBON (Reuters) - A comment made by a far-right lawmaker in Portugal's parliament on Friday that opponents have criticised as racist has sparked a storm over whether or not such remarks should be considered as protected free speech.

Andre Ventura, leader of the Chega party, said that Portugal should be able to build a new Lisbon airport - announced by the government this week - in less than 10 years.

"Istanbul airport was built and it was operational in five years," Ventura said. "The Turks are not exactly known for being the hardest working people in the world."

Lawmakers from left-wing parties said those remarks were racist and had no place in parliament, calling on parliamentary speaker Jose Pedro Aguiar-Branco to condemn them.

But Aguiar-Branco, from the ruling centre-right Social Democrats, said lawmakers had the right to express themselves and that he would not censor them.

In response, Socialist lawmaker Alexandra Leitao asked Aguiar-Branco during a debate in parliament if he would allow politicians to say that a "certain race or ethnicity is dumber or lazier or less worthy" than others.

Aguiar-Branco replied: "In my opinion, they can."

"Freedom of expression is enshrined in the constitution," Aguiar-Branco said. "Judgment of the political discourse made here (in parliament)... will be done by the people at the polls."

Isabel Mendes Lopes of Livre said comments made in parliament could have direct consequences on people's lives, adding: "Racism is a crime."

The anti-immigration, populist Chega is the third-largest political party in Portugal, having quadrupled its parliamentary representation to 50 MPs in the March general election.

Ventura was fined in 2020 for discriminatory remarks against the Roma people, and was also condemned for comments made about a Black lawmaker. At the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, he organised a demonstration to deny racism was a problem in Portugal.

(Reporting by Catarina Demony; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)