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WPFC's 2009 insult laws survey: steps forward, steps back

Spreading defamatory information through the Internet can land you in jail for up to six years in Indonesia - a greater crime than if you defamed someone through traditional means. It's just one example where new media has fuelled restrictive governments to seek even more special protection for public officials, says the World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC) in its just-published annual survey of insult laws.

The comprehensive survey, "Insult Laws: In Contempt of Justice", covers 61 countries where journalists were punished, sometimes with lengthy prison sentences, for allegedly "insulting" the dignity of officials or institutions in 2009. It also provides key portions of insult and criminal defamation laws.

While WPFC says there were notable advances for free expression that year, "steps forward in one country seem to be matched by steps back elsewhere." For instance, while international efforts to make "defamation of religion" a crime were resisted, individual Islamic countries enforced laws against the notion of "hisba" - harming society by failing to uphold religious principles.

Ireland even managed simultaneously to abolish libel as a criminal offence while instituting blasphemy as a new crime, says WPFC.

Meanwhile, in the U.K., a small, "incestuous" class of specialised lawyers have made fortunes exploiting an anomalous legal regime, says Peter Preston, former editor of the "Guardian", in the introduction to the survey. British politicians have in fact responded to public outcries over heavy libel penalties and have lobbied hard to remove them. "The people who are fighting hardest to preserve the status quo - or, at least its money-raising aspects - are lawyers themselves," notes Preston.

WPFC's annual guide to insult laws is researched and written by Austrian lawyer Uta Melzer, and sponsored by a grant from the Swiss-based global printing and publishing company Ringier AG.

Hard copies can be requested in North America from Carolyn Wendell at cwendell (@) gmail.com or from WPFC European representative Ronald Koven at KovenRonald (@) aol.com

The report will soon be available on WPFC's website.

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