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OLD-FASHIONED CRIME OF "BLASPHEMY" BACK WITH A VENGEANCE

In the wake of global protests over publication of the Prophet Mohammed caricatures, the archaic crime of blasphemy has re-emerged as a modern day form of insult law, says the World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC).

Journalists in more than 70 countries were punished, sometimes with lengthy prison sentences, for allegedly "insulting" the dignity of officials or institutions in 2006, according to a report by WPFC.

While some countries have started to repeal or reform their criminal defamation laws - just last week Mexican President Felipe Calderón signed into law the decriminalisation of "defamation", "insults" and "calumny" - other countries, such as Egypt, Turkey and Russia, are using them incessantly, says WPFC. Romania passed a law to decriminalise defamation, but later reversed the decision.

Through a comprehensive review of the insult laws in 75 countries, "It's A Crime: How Insult Laws Stifle Press Freedom" demonstrates that in most defamation cases, the defendants are overwhelmingly critics of the ruling party.

"The conclusion is inescapable: that the insult law is an important weapon in the armoury of the powerful to punish and thus chill expressions of opposition," WPFC says.

WPFC argues that contemporary insult laws are used to discourage criticism of officials, protect government actions from scrutiny and punish journalists who seek and report information.

Just last week in Thailand, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports that two talk show hosts each got two-year jail terms for alleging that a Bangkok official had accepted bribes from a construction contractor. Samak Sundaravej and Dusit Siriwan of "This Morning in Thailand" were sentenced on 12 April.

And in the Philippines, where "the theme for the Philippine press in 2006 was Lawsuit," says WPFC, a radio broadcaster has just been slapped with a four-and-a-half-year prison sentence on criminal libel charges, according to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR). Alex Adonis was charged in 2001 over his series of on-air exposés on Bombo Radyo about the personal life of a local congressman. Adonis could not pay for legal counsel nor make it to the proceedings (a 500-km commute from his home), so he was tried in absentia in early February, and then arrested on 19 February 2007. Press freedom groups were only alerted to his arrest on 2 April.

"It's a Crime", inspired by the "cartoon wars" controversy, is supported by a group of Danish media institutions brought together by Joergen Ejboel, the newspaper executive whose paper was at the centre of the storm over publishing the Mohammed cartoons.

In an address to WPFC, Ejboel described the threats against his life and other journalists at the newspaper "Jyllands-Posten", and the turmoil following the Danish government's decision not to prosecute the newspaper for allegedly violating Denmark's hate speech and blasphemy laws.

Meanwhile, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, an association of 56 Islamic states, is seeking to make blasphemy an offence under international law, reports WPFC.

For a copy of the 305-page report "It's a Crime", see WPFC's website: http://www.wpfc.org/Resources.html or email: [email protected]

Visit these links:
- RSF on Mexico: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=21253
- CPJ on Thailand: http://tinyurl.com/39z97u
- Alert on Adonis: http://www.ifex.org/fr/content/view/full/82197/
(Image courtesy of WPFC)

(17 April 2007)

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