Numerous international documents, including those adopted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), establish freedom of expression as a fundamental right. The right to free speech, however, is not absolute. Consistent with international law, certain kinds of speech, such as obscenity, may be prohibited or regulated. When governments restrict speech, however, those restrictions must be consistent with their international obligations and commitments; for example, the restrictions must be necessary in a democratic country and proscribed by law.
Criminal defamation and “insult” laws are often defended as necessary to prevent alleged abuses of freedom of expression. They are not, however, consistent with OSCE norms and their use constitutes an infringement on the fundamental right to free speech.
Criminal Defamation Laws
All individuals, including public officials, have a legitimate right to protect their reputations if untruthful statements have been made about them. Untrue statements which damage a person’s reputation constitute defamation. Oral defamation is known as slander; defamation in writing or other permanent forms such as film is libel. In some instances, criminal codes make defamation of public officials, the nation, or government organs a discreet offense, as distinct from defamation of a person.
Truthful statements–as well as unverifiable statements of opinion–are not legally actionable as defamation. Indeed, the European Court of Human Rights has held that public officials must tolerate a greater degree of criticism than private individuals: “The limits of acceptable criticism are accordingly wider as regards a politician as such than as regards a private individual. Unlike the latter, the former inevitably and knowingly lays himself open to close scrutiny of his every word and deed by both journalists and the public at large, and he must consequently display a greater degree of tolerance.” (Lingens v. Austria, Eur. Ct. H.R., 1986.)
Criminal defamation laws are those which establish criminal sanctions for defamation. Those sanctions may include imprisonment, fines, and prohibitions on writing. Individuals convicted of defamation in a criminal proceeding and sentenced to suspended prison terms may be subjected to the threat of immediate imprisonment if, for example, they violate an order not to publish. The existence of a criminal record may also have other social and legal consequences. In a criminal defamation case, state law enforcement agents (police and prosecutors)–using taxpayer money–investigate and prosecute the alleged defamation on behalf of the complainant.
It is sometimes argued that criminal defamation laws are necessary to achieve the legitimate goal of providing the victims of defamation with redress. But general laws against libel and slander, embodied in civil codes, provide private persons as well as public officials the opportunity to seek redress, including damages, for alleged defamation. In such cases, the plaintiff and defendant stand in court as equals. Accordingly, specific criminal laws prohibiting defamation are unnecessary.
“Insult” laws make offending the “honor and dignity” of public officials (e.g., the President), government offices (e.g., the Constitutional Court), national institutions, and/or the “state” itself punishable. Unlike defamation laws, truth is not a defense to a charge of insult. Accordingly, insult laws are often used to punish the utterance of truthful statements, as well as opinions, satire, invective, and even humor.
Although insult laws and criminal defamation laws both punish speech, significant differences exist between them. Defamation laws are intended to provide a remedy against false assertions of fact. Truthful statements, as well as opinion, are not actionable. The use of civil laws to punish defamation is permissible under international free speech norms. The use of criminal sanctions to punish defamation, however, chills free speech, is subject to abuse (through the use of state law enforcement agents), and is inconsistent with international norms. In contrast, recourse to any insult law, whether embodied in a civil or a criminal code, is inconsistent with international norms.
Their Use Today
At one time, almost all OSCE countries had criminal defamation and insult laws. Over time, these laws have been repealed, invalidated by courts, or fallen into disuse in many OSCE participating States. Unfortunately, many criminal codes contained multiple articles punishing defamation and insult. Thus, even when parliaments and courts have acted, they have sometimes failed to remove all legal prohibitions against insult or all criminal sanctions for defamation. In communist countries and other anti-democratic regimes, such laws are often used to target political opponents of the government.
Today, when insult and criminal defamation laws are used, they are most often used to punish mere criticism of government policies or public officials, to stifle political discussion, and to squelch news and discussion that governments would rather avoid. It is relatively rare for a private individual (someone who is not a public official, elected representative, or person of means and influence) to persuade law enforcement representatives to use the tax dollars of the public to protect their reputations. In some OSCE countries, such laws are still used systematically to punish political opponents of the regime. Even in countries where these laws have fallen into a long period of disuse, it is not unheard of for an overzealous prosecutor to revive them for seemingly political purposes.
The International Context
Numerous non-governmental organizations have taken strong positions against criminal defamation and insult laws. These include Amnesty International; Article 19; the Committee to Protect Journalists; national non-governmental Helsinki committees such as the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, Croatian Helsinki Committee, Greek Helsinki Committee, Romanian Helsinki Committee, and Slovak Helsinki Committee; the International Helsinki Federation; The World Press Freedom Committee; Norwegian Forum for Freedom of Expression; national chapters of PEN; and Reporters Sans Frontières.
Moreover, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the Organization of American States Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression issued a joint statement in February 2000 which included the following conclusions, based on relevant international norms:
- “Expression should not be criminalized unless it poses a clear risk of serious harm. [. . . ] Examples of this are laws prohibiting the publication of false news and sedition laws. . . . These laws should be repealed.”
- “Criminal defamation laws should be abolished.”
- “Civil defamation laws should respect the following principles: public bodies should not be able to bring defamation actions; truth should always be available as a defense; politicians and public officials should have to tolerate a greater degree of criticism. . . .”
Finally, the United States Department of State regularly reports on cases where criminal defamation or insult laws have been used in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and, at OSCE meetings, has frequently called for the repeal of such laws in recent years.
Criminal Defamation and Insult Laws in Armenia
Since Armenia gained independence in 1991, there have been mixed developments regarding freedom of speech and a free press. There is no outright censorship in Armenia and a plurality of views can be found in the press. Nevertheless, there are reasons for concern.
In April 2002, for example, two independent television stations, Noyan Tapan and A1+, had their broadcasting licenses revoked in what was widely seen as a politically motivated move. Subsequent efforts to renew those licenses have failed; as recently as October 13, 2003, A1+ was turned down again. In October 2002, independent journalist Mark Grigorian–then preparing an investigative report on the 1999 terrorist attack in the Parliament which resulted in eight deaths–was himself the victim of a grenade attack (which he survived). In December 2002, Tigran Nagdalian, Chairman of the National Public Television Board, was murdered. In April 2003, journalist Mger Galechian was seriously beaten after the newspaper for which he worked, Chorrord Ishkanutyun, ran an article critical of the head of Armenia’s National Security Services. Journalists were also the victims of harassment and intimidation during presidential elections in 2003. On September 27, 2003, Gayone Mukoyan, editor-in-chief of Yerevan’s Or newspaper, was beaten.
In addition, in February 2002 the government released a draft law on mass media which, according to Freedom House, would “require journalists to pay for interviews with officials and create a government agency to ‘monitor’ the media.” Although the bill’s worst elements have been removed, journalists still view the pending draft as inadequate. In September 2003, the National Press Club in Yerevan organized demonstrations outside the Armenia parliament against the draft law.
The use of criminal defamation or insult laws in Armenia does not appear to be the regime’s first line of defense against the opposition. Nevertheless, it is a tool that public leaders have been consistently willing to use against their critics. In 2000, for example, Nikol Pashinyan, editor-in-chief of the Yerevan-based opposition newspaper Aykakan Zhamanak was charged with insult and given a suspended sentence. Charges were brought against poet Dzanik Adamyan in 2002 as well as against Dzhema Saakyan (who reportedly typed the poems on a typewriter), but the charges were dropped after Adamyan spent two months in prison and Saakyan spent a few days in the custody of police. Pashinyan was charged again with insult in April 2002; those charges were eventually dropped.
On April 18, 2003, the National Assembly adopted Armenia’s first post-Soviet penal code. That bill was signed into law by the president on April 30, 2003. Unfortunately, the new penal code effectively renumbered, but did not repeal, those articles criminalizing defamation and insult.
On June 19, 2003, Ambassador Roy Reeve, Head of the OSCE Office in Yerevan, sent an open letter to Artur Bagdasaryan, the newly elected Speaker of the National Assembly of Armenia. (The letter was also signed by members of the informal Media Legislation Working Group including representatives of the Embassies of the United Kingdom, Germany, the United States, Italy, Romania, Poland and ten representatives of non-governmental organizations.) The writers called for the decriminalization of defamation and insult and further criticized the fact that the code envisions greater penalties for insult of government officials than for ordinary citizens. According to the regular report to the OSCE Permanent Council submitted on July 31, 2003, by Freimut Duve, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Duve also wrote to the Armenian Foreign Minister expressing concern regarding this matter.
The views of OSCE officials, non-governmental organizations, and members of Yerevan’s diplomatic community have met with mixed reactions. On the one hand, Parliamentary Speaker Artur Bagdasaryan pledged that parliament would review the criminal code. On the other hand, Parliament Deputy Speaker Tigran Torosian initially rejected these views as “interference in Armenia’s internal affairs.” In fact, the 1991 OSCE Moscow Document, accepted by Armenia when it joined the OSCE in 1992, explicitly states that the OSCE participating States “categorically and irrevocably declare that the commitments undertaken in the field of the human dimension of the [OSCE] are matters of direct and legitimate concern to all participating States and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the State concerned.”
Meanwhile, Manvel Grigorian, one of the drafters of the new penal code, responded by arguing that defamation is a criminal offense in all other member states of the Commonwealth of Independent States (i.e., those countries which, like Armenia, inherited a communist penal code) as well as some countries like Germany.
While it is true that other post-Soviet countries have failed to repeal their communist-era criminal defamation and insult laws, the clear trend in post-communist Central Europe–where democratic reform is generally more advanced–is to decriminalize defamation and abolish insult laws. This incremental process continues to move in a singular direction: criminal defamation and insult laws have been repealed or struck down (in whole or in part) in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. In May 2003, the Romanian Government proposed a new penal code with sweeping and positive changes to the current provisions on insult and defamation; that draft is before the parliament. Countries like Germany–longtime members of the Council of Europe–have already had their criminal defamation or insult laws somewhat “neutralized” through the European Court of Human Right’s case law. Those countries where the implementation of an archaic criminal defamation or insult law contradicts the European Court’s evolving and elevating norms pay a price–literally–for doing so.
Relevant Armenia Laws
The articles of the Armenian penal code which are not consistent with Armenia’s freely undertaken OSCE commitments include:
Article 135. Libel.
- Dissemination of false information humiliating a person’s good reputation, dignity and honor, is punishable by a fine in the amount of 50 to 150 times the minimum salary, or correctional labor for up to one year.
- Libel through public speeches, publicly demonstrated works or through mass media, is punishable by a fine in the amount of 100 to 200 times the minimum salary, or correctional labor for one to two years, or with arrest for up to two months.
- Actions envisaged in parts 1 or 2 of this Article, accompanied with accusation of the person committing grave or particularly grave crime, are punishable by correctional labor for up to two years, or with arrest for the term of one to two months, or with imprisonment for up to three years.
Article 136. Insult.
- Insult is the improper humiliation of another person’s honor and dignity and is punishable by a fine in the amount of up to 100 times the minimum salary, or correctional labor for up to six months.
- Insult manifested in public speeches, in publicly demonstrated works or by mass media, is punishable by a fine in the amount of 50 to 200 times the minimum salary, or correctional work for up to one year.
Article 318. Insulting a Representative of the Authorities.
- Publicly insulting a representative of authorities, in relation to the duties carried out by him, is punishable by a fine in the amount of 100 to 200 times the minimum salary, or correctional labor for six months to one year.
- The same act expressed in public speeches, in publicly demonstrated works, or by mass media, is punished with a fine in the amount of 200 to 400 times the minimum salary, or with arrest for a term of one to three months, or with imprisonment for a term of up to two years.
1. See: “Statement Regarding Key Issues and Challenges in Freedom of Expression,” agreed by Santiago Canton, OAS Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, Freimut Duve, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, and Abid Hussain, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, February 2000, www.article19.org. See also: “Insult Laws: An Insult to Press Freedom,” published by The World Press Freedom Committee, www.wpfc.org.
2. Freedom House, Nations in Transit 2003 (www.freedomhouse.org).
3. The non-governmental organizations were: the Eurasia Foundation, the Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation-Armenia, the London-based Article 19, ABA/CEELI, the Yerevan Press Club; the Association of Investigative Journalists, Internews, ProMedia, Media Law Institute, and Caucasus Media Institute. The full text of the letter is at: http://www.osce.org/news/generate. pf.php3?news_id=3358.
4. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Newsline, 23 June 2003 (www.rferl.org).
5. The abolition of criminal defamation and insult laws has been achieved both through the adoption of new penal codes and through high court rulings striking down laws deemed inconsistent with the national constitution and/or international law. In most Central European countries, this process has resulted in a gradual diminishing of the numbers of articles in the penal code that punish defamation or insult.
6. It is nowhere argued that Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms prohibited criminal defamation or insult laws at the time of its adoption in 1950. Indeed, Article 10 of the European Convention is frequently decried by free speech advocates as the most restrictive free speech provision of any of the major international agreements on human rights. Many of the first countries to join the Council of Europe had criminal defamation or insult laws at the time they ratified the Convention.
Nevertheless, since 1950, the cases of the European Court on Human Rights demonstrate evolving concepts of free speech (concepts most clearly articulated by the OAS, UN and OSCE Special Rapporteurs quoted in the first part of this report). Thus, while the Court has never ruled that a criminal defamation or insult law is per se in violation of the European Convention, the actual implementation of such a law runs a substantial risk of being found to violate the Convention. In 2002, for example, France was required to pay 4,096.46 Euros to a plaintiff who had been charged with insulting a foreign head of state (the King of Morocco). That same year, Finland was required to pay 8,400 Euros to a plaintiff who had been charged with criminal defamation (with 13 percent interest on the pecuniary damages and 11 percent interest on non-pecuniary damages). As a consequence of this judicial trend–and perhaps an increasing understanding of the civil alternatives to criminal prosecution for defamation–such laws are increasingly viewed as anachronisms.
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.