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World: Analysis From Washington -- Insulting Laws

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 9 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A press freedom organization has issued a pamphlet on how to identify and fight one of the more insidious threats to media freedom around the world: "insult laws" which allow governments to intimidate or silence journalists who report anything that offends officials.

The U.S.-based World Press Freedom Committee, an umbrella coordination group for national and international news media organizations, this week released a booklet entitled "Hiding from the People: How 'Insult' Laws Restrict Public Scrutiny of Public Officials."

The 20-page pamphlet argues that insult laws, which have their origin in medieval rules against insulting the monarch, are used "to stifle the kind of reporting and commentary about claimed official misconduct or corruption that it is precisely the responsibility of the press to disclose."

In some countries, these laws are a survival from the past, but in others, they are a recent innovation, used by governments that want to portray themselves as democratic but which in fact remain highly authoritarian, the committee says.

Such regimes choose to use these laws because they appear to be simply an extension of the universally recognized right of individuals and officials to sue for defamation when media outlets or others make false assertions of fact. But in reality, insult laws prohibit the reporting of anything that leaders believe offends their "honor and dignity" regardless of whether it is true.

Sometimes the existence of such laws and the threat that they will be used are enough to intimidate journalists. But at other times, the governments may take the journalists or news outlets to court and fine them sufficiently heavily to force them out of business. Among post-communist countries whose leaders have made use of such legislation, the pamphlet says, are Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Ukraine, and Croatia.

But recognizing the threat, the World Press Freedom Committee says, is only the first step. Then, both domestic and international groups concerned about media freedom and all the other freedoms it makes possible must strive to overcome these laws.

And the pamphlet provides five arguments for those who seek to do so.

First, such laws are unnecessary because libel and slander legislation already protects officials and others from false reports.

Second, public officials by the nature of their work "deserve less -- not more -- protection from reporting and commentary than ordinary citizens."

Third, "democracy and economic prosperity are not possible without public accountability of leaders, transparency in transactions, and vigorous public discussion of issues and choices."

Fourth, "press freedom cannot be said to exist in a nation where journalists are jailed for their work. And without press freedom, no nation can call itself a democracy."

And fifth, the committee says, "full participation in the international political and economic community is not possible as long as a nation fails to abide by the principles of good governance accepted by that community.

All nations are bound by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and its broad call for the free flow of information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

Sometimes, this battle can be fought in the courts, sometimes in legislatures, sometimes in the public, and sometimes in the international arena, the pamphlet says. And it notes that there have been important victories in the fight against this threat to a free press: 11 countries have repealed or invalidated insult laws in the last decade alone.

But the struggle must continue, the pamphlet concludes, because "in free and democratic societies, the journalist, as surrogate for the people, must be a watch dog -- not a lap dog."

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