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WPFC releases world survey of insult laws

(WPFC/IFEX) - The World Press Freedom Committee ( ) has just released a new world survey of insult laws - "The Right to Offend, Shock or Disturb: A Guide to Evolution of Insult Laws in 2007 and 2008" by Carolyn R. Wendell.

Laws against insult typically grant special protection to government leaders and officials, state institutions and national symbols. In the words of WPFC Chairman Richard N. Winfield's Preface, their purpose is "to intimidate" and, "complete repeal is the only sensible remedy."

French expert Caroline Fourest concludes in her Introduction that the current campaign by Islamic countries to institute an internationally recognized crime of "defamation of religions" poses a major threat of global censorship that would undermine the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and break down the separation of Church and State guaranteeing religious diversity in democracies.

There was a notable advance during the two years of the study. Britain repealed the crimes of "blasphemy" and "blasphemous libel" - two original forms of insult laws providing special protections for established religions and religious doctrines. They had not been used for years in Britain, but their very existence served as a justification for similar laws elsewhere.

By contrast, France has revived use of insult laws to protect President Nicolas Sarkozy from "insult." The French insult law has served as a model for similar laws in France's former African colonies and much of Eastern Europe, both regions where such laws are widely used to imprison and/or impose heavy fines on offending journalists and news outlets.

While the survey of 58 representative countries throughout the world shows important setbacks in WPFC's campaign to eliminate insult laws, there have been advances in serious consideration and actual abrogation in such important Latin American countries as Argentina, Chile, Mexico and Uruguay - countries where such laws are modeled on the Spanish legal concept of desacato (contempt).

Even in China, the study cited a mixed picture in which officials continue to protect themselves against criticism with defamation suits but ordinary citizens increasingly fight back with suits of their own against attacks by state-controlled media.

The study's title is drawn from a now-classic European Human Rights ruling of 1976, saying that freedom of expression also applies to information and ideas "that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population."

The WPFC study is a followup to two earlier world surveys - "Insult Laws: An Insult to Press Freedom," a 2000 study of laws and their application in 90 countries, and the 2006 book "It's a Crime: How Insult Laws Stifle Press Freedom."

A further WPFC review is under way for 2009, with the support of the Swiss-based world printing and publishing company of Ringier AG, also the sponsor of the 2007-2008 survey.

See the full survey here:
The_Right_to_Offend,_Shock_or_Disturb.pdf (3876 KB)

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