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WPFC's annual global survey of insult laws: steps forward/steps back

(WPFC/IFEX) - Washington, USA, Dec. 6, 2010 - The World Press Freedom Committee's just-published annual survey of insult laws, shows that, while there have been notable advances for freedom of expression, the advent of new online media has emboldened restrictive governments to seek even more such special protections for public officials on the pretext that "insults" in cyberspace deserve even more punishment than before.

The survey, titled "Insult Laws: In Contempt of Justice," covers 61 countries where there were notable cases and legal developments last year. It was researched and written by US-educated Austrian lawyer Uta Melzer. It also serves as a reference tool for press freedom advocates by providing key portions of insult and criminal defamation laws.

Richard Winfield, Chairman of WPFC from 2006 to 2010 and former general counsel of the Associated Press, notes in a preface that while such traditional special protection of officialdom originated in monarchical societies, it has been "democratized" by the current crop of non-aristocratic dictators. However much the totalitarian horrors of Europe's 20th Century might make understandable the desire to protect against hate speech, says Winfield, latter-day laws meant to protect the weak and vulnerable have been "hijacked" by contemporary politicians to stifle free speech.

Peter Preston, former Editor of The Guardian and now Co-Director of the Guardian Foundation, makes the point in an introduction that in democratic Britain it has not been so much the politicians who have lobbied to maintain the country's notoriously plaintiff-friendly libel setup as a small, "incestuous" class of specialized lawyers who have made fortunes exploiting an anomalous legal regime. In moving to reform a system that prompted California, Florida, Illinois and New York to pass state laws against its enforcement, British politicians have in fact responded to outcries over heavy libel penalties by public opinion's rebellion against them as manifestly unfair. "The people who are fighting hardest to preserve the status quo - or, at least its money-raising aspects - are lawyers themselves," notes Preston.

The British public has finally shamed its politicians into siding with "their supposedly despised adversaries, journalists, against some of the leaders of the legal profession," said Preston. Also, "one country's democratic politicians say to another country's politicians that their libel regime stinks. England's ministers feel the shame and take the hint." But, he adds, in considering the problems of revoking such laws in far less democratic countries like Uzbekistan, Morocco or Malaysia, it should also be recalled that "reform has still many self-interested enemies."

Ms. Melzer says that in 2009 legislators toughened insult laws in reaction to the spread of the Internet. Indonesia made online defamation a greater crime than in traditional media.

She notes that while efforts in the international arena to enact "defamation of religion" as a crime were resisted, there was growing national enforcement in Islamic countries of laws against the notion of hisba - harming society by failing to uphold religious principles.

Steps forward in one country seem to be matched by steps back elsewhere. Ireland even managed simultaneously to abolish libel as a criminal offense while instituting blasphemy as a new crime.

WPFC's annual guide to evolution of insult laws is sponsored by a grant from the Swiss-based global printing and publishing company Ringier AG.

Printed copies may be requested in North America from Carolyn Wendell at [email protected] or from WPFC European Representative Ronald Koven at [email protected]

Click here to read the full survey

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