Meeting at its Annual General Assembly on 17 May 2004 in Warsaw, Poland, the IPI members unanimously passed a resolution stating that laws making defamation a criminal offence and “insult laws”, giving special protection for states and governments and their officials by criminalising criticism, are illegitimate.
Prison terms are never justified for dissemination of news and information or for expressions of opinion, no matter how unsettling or offensive they may seem to those involved.
Recent court judgments sentencing Polish journalists to jail terms or suspended sentences for alleged defamation are accordingly unjustified. There are also numerous criminal charges pending against other journalists in Poland. The IPI membership welcomed President Alexsander Kwasniewski’s statement at the IPI World Congress on 16 May that he was willing to undertake every effort to help change any legal provisions in Poland that
allow for such sentences.
The view that the criminalisation of defamation is illegitimate is shared by the world’s leading courts such as the European Court of Human Rights, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and the US Supreme Court. The clear trend of their opinions is that defamation (libel and slander) should be treated under civil law, to be adjudicated between the parties by civil courts, not as criminal offences subject to state punishments.
The UN Human Rights Commission has adopted such longstanding positions of its various Special Rapporteurs as that “sentencing to a prison term for libel or defamation is clearly not a proportionate penalty.” A Commission-endorsed report by the Special Rapporteurs stated in 1992, “Detention, as a negative sanction for the peaceful expression of opinion,
is one of the most reprehensible practices employed to silence people and accordingly constitutes a serious violation of human rights.”
A number of established West European democracies continue to keep on their statute books outdated criminal defamation and “insult laws” that are generally no longer used. Yet, their continued existence is regularly cited by authoritarian or transition governmental and judicial authorities tojustify the active use of such laws to silence news and commentary.
Established democracies should accordingly act swiftly to remove such negative examples from their laws.
In recent years, some countries have fully or partially revoked such laws. Those countries include Argentina, the Czech Republic, Egypt, Ghana, Hungary, Kenya, Moldova, Paraguay, Slovakia, Spain, Sri Lanka. France has eliminated most jail sentences for “crimes of opinion.”
Those actions constitute clear recognition by governments and courts that such laws are in gross violation of everyone’s right “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers,” as set forth in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
There are legal remedies in civil libel law against perceived defamations. Moreover, as the world’s leading courts have held, public officials need to be afforded less, not more, protection from defamation than ordinary citizens if there is to be the free and vigorous public debate which is the hallmark of a democratic society.
The world’s leading journalists represented in the International Press Institute accordingly call on parliaments to abolish such laws, on governments to refrain from using them where they exist and to call for their revocation, and on courts to refuse to invoke them and to rule that
they violate the fundamental human rights of free speech and press freedom.