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CRIMINAL DEFAMATION LAWS HAMPER FREE EXPRESSION

Poland's criminal defamation laws have come under heavy criticism from the International Press Institute (IPI), ARTICLE 19 and Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, RSF), who say recent court decisions could set a dangerous legal precedent for freedom of expression in the country. They argue that the laws conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights, a treaty to which Poland became a signatory when it joined the European Union in 2004.

On 25 January 2005, a Warsaw court fined publisher Jerzy Urban 5,000 Euro (US$6,400) for insulting a foreign head of state. The charges stem from an article Urban wrote in the satirical weekly magazine "Nie" ("No") on 15 August 2002 in which the author described Pope John Paul II as "an impotent old man offering a spectacle of horror to the public."

The editorial was titled "The Walking Sado-Masochist" and likened the Vatican leader to former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. It was published on the eve of the Pope's visit to his native Poland. A request from the state prosecutor for a 10-month suspended jail sentence was denied.

IPI says the decision shows that the process of bringing Poland's laws in line with EU standards has failed to ensure that freedom of the press and freedom of expression are protected in the country. Under Poland's Criminal Code, anyone who publicly insults a foreign head of state can be sentenced to prison for up to three years.

In May and July 2004, two Polish journalists were sentenced to jail for slandering a public official, becoming the first individuals to be convicted under Poland's defamation laws since democracy was restored in 1989 (http://www.freemedia.at/Protests2004/Poland25.06.04.htm).

The court cases have prompted the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to express concern. Its Representative on Freedom of the Media, Miklos Haraszti, has sent a letter to the Minister of Justice urging the government to decriminalise defamation, saying the country's laws give public officials "an elevated level of protection from criticism."

In most EU countries criminal defamation laws have not been used for many years, even if they remain on the statute books. Haraszti says the European Court of Human Rights has ruled on many occasions that jail sentences for journalistic opinions violate Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Visit:
- IPI: http://www.freemedia.at/Protests2005/pr_Poland26.01.05.htm
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=12329
- OSCE: http://www.osce.org/news/show_news.php?id=4666
- ARTICLE 19 Backgrounder on Defamation: http://www.article19.org/docimages/714.htm
- International Herald Tribune: http://www.iht.com/articles/2005/01/25/news/poland.html
- Urban's Past as a Former Communist Spokesperson: http://www.guardian.co.uk/worldlatest/story/0,1280,-4755408,00.html
- Nie: http://www.nie.com.pl/

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