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In EU, calls to repeal blasphemy laws grow after Paris attacks

This statement was originally published on freemedia.at on 16 January 2015,.

Calls in Europe for the abolition of the continent's remaining blasphemy laws have grown louder following last week's deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo, a French magazine known for its unsparing religious satire.

At least 14 EU member states maintain criminal blasphemy or religious insult laws, according to research led by the International Press Institute (IPI).

The list includes Ireland, where politicians are reportedly debating whether to fast-track a planned referendum on scrapping the country's blasphemy provision. Op-eds in two major national newspapers, the Irish Times and the Irish Independent, published in response to the Paris shootings, have called for repeal of the law, which punishes “gross abuse or insult” to matters “held sacred by any religion” with a fine of up to €25,000.

In Austria, the spokesman for judicial affairs of the co-ruling Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) told the daily Die Presse earlier this week that abolishing the country's religious insult law would constitute a “clear step” in the direction of separating church and state. But Justice Minister Wolfgang Brandstetter of the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) was reported in the same article to have ruled out the move and Chancellor Werner Faymann (SPÖ) declined to offer his support during a Monday evening interview with Austria's public broadcaster.

The law, Sec. 188 of the Austrian Criminal Code, bans the ridiculing of a religious custom or doctrine so as to cause “justified indignation” and carries a potential punishment of six months in prison.

IPI's tally includes laws that prohibit defamation of religions as such or their beliefs, practices and divinities. The other 12 states are Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France (the Alsace-Moselle region only), Germany, Greece, Italy, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom (Northern Ireland only). EU candidate states Iceland and Turkey also contain similar prohibitions.

Imprisonment is a possible offence in all but Italy and Ireland, with the situation in Northern Irish common law unclear. IPI's research findings on the subject are summarised in the following chart , which also includes information on other member-state laws that may merit additional scrutiny.

France's blasphemy law, valid only in Alsace-Moselle and a relic of onetime German rule in the region, is, in fact, the most draconian: publicly blaspheming against God or publicly offending any established religious community is punishable with up to three years in prison. Despite the provision's archaic provenance, a French-Muslim legal defence group used it to file blasphemy charges against Charlie Hebdo in Strasbourg in 2014.

In Denmark, where the newspaper Jyllands-Posten first published controversial vignettes of the Prophet Mohammed in 2005, mocking religious doctrine can lead to four months in prison. Elsewhere in northern Europe, Finnish law punishes “publicly blaspheming against God” or defaming matters held sacred by a religious community with up to six months in prison.

“The widespread existence of blasphemy and religious insult laws in the European Union clashes with member states' strong pronouncements in favour of freedom of expression both prior to and in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks”, IPI Director of Press Freedom Programmes Scott Griffen said. “Moreover, it contrasts sharply with the spirit of the European Court of Human Rights' ruling of more than 35 years ago that the right to freedom of expression includes the right to shock, offend and disturb. No belief, however strongly it is held, should be accorded special protection from criticism; such is the blessing and burden that comes with living in an open and democratic society.”

Griffen noted that while laws prohibiting incitement to discrimination, hatred and violence are generally accepted as legitimate and even necessary restrictions on freedom of expression by international human-rights bodies, blasphemy and religious insult laws are not. The U.N. Human Rights Committee has asserted that “[p]rohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the [International] Covenant [on Civil and Political Rights]”.

In a 2008 Joint Declaration on Defamation of Religions , the special rapporteurs on free expression of the U.N., the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Organization of American States and the African Commission on Human and People's Rights proclaimed that restrictions on speech “should never be used to protect particular institutions or abstract notions, concepts or beliefs, including religious ones”. The rapporteurs also rejected the concept of “defamation of religions”.

Blasphemy and religious insult laws such as Sec. 188 of the Austrian Criminal Code are subject to constitutional safeguards for freedom of expression, Austrian Constitutional Court Justice Christoph Grabenwarter emphasised in a television interview on Tuesday. Grabenwarter said he opposed abolishing the Austrian provision, suggesting it was necessary for “maintaining peace” among religious communities.

But Griffen noted that most EU countries, including Austria, already have separate laws against incitement – a point also made in the interview – and he said that maintaining additional laws against religious insult “may send the wrong signal in the face of such a violent attack on freedom of expression in Europe”.

IPI's research into blasphemy and religious laws was conducted as part of its broader investigation into defamation laws in the EU, the subject of its Out of Balance report. Released last summer, the report incorporates data collected by researchers at the School of Public Policy's Center for Media, Data and Society at the Central European University in Budapest and their partners at the SHARE Foundation in Belgrade.

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