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Criminal Defamation and “Insult” Laws: A Summary of Free Speech Developments in Slovakia
Friday, December 14, 2001

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) act, using taxpayer money, to investigate the alleged defamation and to act on behalf of the alleged victim. 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

"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 to systematically 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 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.

Illustrative Slovak Cases

Since the establishment of an independent Slovak state on January 1, 1993, there have been a steady trickle of people who have been charged with “insulting” or defaming public officials. At present, for example, journalist Ales Kratky is facing charges of criminal defamation in connection with his May 2001 criticism of a speech delivered by President Rudolf Schuster. If found guilty, Kratky faces a possible two-year prison term. In March 2000, journalist Vladimir Mohorita was sentenced to four months in prison for criticizing the government’s decision to allow NATO aircraft to use Slovak airspace during the Kosovo crisis. In a substantially larger number of instances, individuals (most often journalists and politicians) have been threatened with charges of defamation or insult. Indeed, it is a time-honored tradition in Slovakia to accuse one’s political enemies of defamation.

In addition to free speech concerns presented by recourse to criminal defamation and insult laws, developments in Slovakia have raised other free speech concerns. For example, the charge of defamation of race, creed or nationality has become increasingly popular in recent years. Deputy Jan Slota, widely known for his inflammatory anti-Hungarian and anti-Roma rhetoric, survived an effort to strip him of his parliamentary immunity in 1999 as a prelude to charging him with defamation of race, creed or nationality. More recently, Romani activist Alexander Patkolo has been threatened with the charge of spreading alarming information and human rights lawyer Columbus Igboanusi has been threatened with charges of spreading alarming information and defaming the Republic of Slovakia. Sources include: Amnesty International (AI); Article XIX; the Committee to Protect Journalists; East European Constitutional Review; “Freedom in the World” reports (published by Freedom House); Index on Censorship; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; U.S. State Department annual Country Reports on Human Rights; the World Press Freedom Committee.

Relevant Slovak Laws

News reports about persons charged with criminal defamation or “insulting” public officials, government offices or national institutions often do not cite the specific legal basis for the charges. In Slovakia, the laws which appear to give rise to such charges include the following: Article 49 (1) (a) of the Simple Offenses Act provides that anyone who offends another person by insulting him or exposing him to ridicule may be punished by a fine. Article 102 of the Penal Code prohibits defamation of the Republic, National Council of the Slovak Republic, Government or the Constitutional Court of the Slovak Republic, punishable by up to two years in prison. Article 103 of the Penal Code prohibits defamation of the President of the Republic for the execution of his powers or for his activities in the political life, punishable by up to two years in prison. Article 154(2) of the Penal Code prohibits gross insults or defamation of an organ of state administration in the exercise of its function or in connection with its function, punishable by up to one year in prison. Article 206 of the Penal Code prohibits the dissemination of false and discrediting information about another person, punishable by up to two years in prison. If the defamation occurs in the broadcast or print media, the punishment may increase to five years. In addition, someone convicted under this article may be banned from working as a journalist.

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    WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s disclosure that Azerbaijani press freedom advocate Emin Huseynov has spent the past six months sheltering in the Swiss Embassy in Baku, Helsinki Commission Chairman Chris Smith (NJ-04) issued the following statement:  “Through the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), Emin Huseynov has worked tirelessly to defend journalists and promote media freedom in Azerbaijan. I appeal to President Aliyev to immediately allow Mr. Huseynov to leave the Swiss Embassy and give him safe passage out of Azerbaijan. Sadly, the persecution of Mr. Huseynov is part of a larger crackdown on human rights activists – I have met some of their family members and friends, and join my voice to those calling for their release.” Mr. Huseynov heads the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), an independent NGO that has provided training and legal support to journalists under threat in Azerbaijan since 2006. Approximately eight months ago, the Azerbaijani authorities froze IRFS’ bank account and seized the organization’s computers and other work materials. Mr. Huseynov was forbidden to leave the country and sought asylum in the Swiss Embassy after learning that he was likely to be arrested.

  • Rep. Chris Smith, Sen. Roger Wicker to Lead Helsinki Commission

    WASHINGTON—Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) has been appointed by Speaker of the House John Boehner as chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, during the 114th Congress. Senator Roger Wicker (MS) has been appointed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to co-chair the Commission. “Today, the principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act are under attack. The Russian government is blatantly violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” said Chairman Smith. “More than 20 million people are trafficked each year for sexual or other forms of exploitation. Journalists in the OSCE region are being imprisoned, tortured, and even murdered for exposing corruption or publishing controversial pieces. In Europe, violent anti-Semitism is again rearing its ugly head, and in some OSCE countries religious people face restrictions and even persecution merely for practicing their faith.” “The United States must advocate much more vigorously for those who are victims and are voiceless. As the chair of the bipartisan, bicameral Helsinki Commission, I look forward to working with my fellow Commissioners to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms and to safeguard the principles shared by the 57 participating States of the OSCE,” said Chairman Smith, who has been an active member of the Helsinki Commission since 1983. “I am pleased to join Chairman Smith and the other members of the Helsinki Commission in defending democratic values and the rule of law,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “Peace and security are under threat in the wake of escalating Russian aggression – impacting our economic and strategic interests in the region. This situation calls for a unified response from the United States and our OSCE partner countries. We should work together to ensure a safe, free, and prosperous Europe for this generation and those that follow.” Chairman Smith has previously chaired the Commission and serves as a member of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA), which facilitates inter-parliamentary dialogue among the 57 participating States; he is also the OSCE PA’s Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues. Senator Wicker also serves as a member of the OSCE PA, where he chairs the Committee on Political Affairs and Security.

  • Chairman Smith and Rep. McGovern Introduce “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act”

    WASHINGTON—Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and Rep. Jim McGovern (MA-02), today introduced the “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act” (H.R. 624). The bill prohibits foreign human rights offenders and corrupt officials operating anywhere in the world from entering into the United States and blocks their U.S. assets. It effectively globalizes and strengthens the “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012,” which was directed at individuals and entities from Russia. “The ‘Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act’ is a game-changer, and demonstrates America’s commitment to protecting human rights worldwide,” said Chairman Smith. “We are sending a message to the world’s worst human rights violators:  we will shine a spotlight on your crimes. We will deny your visas. We will freeze your assets. No matter who you are or how much money you have, you won’t be enjoying the fruits of your misdeeds by visiting the United States or taking advantage of our financial institutions.” “We have made important progress in the last few years,” Rep. McGovern said.  “But since the introduction of the original Magnitsky Act, human rights defenders and anti-corruption activists worldwide have urged us to pass a law that covers similar violations in countries other than Russia.  Through the Global Magnitsky Act, we can better standardize our approach to human rights violators and provide clear guidance to the executive branch on how we expect these perpetrators to be held accountable.” “Conscripting child soldiers, kidnapping political opponents, and brutalizing people based on their religion are horrifying acts for which people must be held accountable – and this bill will do it,” said Chairman Smith. “The earlier Magnitsky Act enjoyed overwhelmingly bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate. I expect the Global Magnitsky Act to move forward with the same level of commitment in both chambers, and on both sides of the aisle.” Earlier this week, Senators Ben Cardin (MD) and John McCain (AZ) introduced similar legislation in the Senate, which also applies worldwide and employs visa bans and property freezes. Unique aspects of the House bill include the requirement that the President impose sanctions if he or she determines that a foreign person has committed gross human rights offenses. The bill also permits the President to sanction perpetrators regardless of whether the victims were exercising or defending basic human rights; requires that the annual Global Magnitsky List be released each year on Human Rights Day; and directs the Comptroller General to assess and report on implementation. Both the “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act” and the earlier “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012” were inspired by Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested and imprisoned by the Russian government following his investigation into fraud involving Russian officials. He was beaten to death by prison guards in 2009 after being held in torturous conditions for 11 months without trial. Summary: The “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act” This act requires the President to publish and update a list of foreign persons or entities that the President determines are responsible, and who the President has sanctioned, for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights – including extrajudicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances, and prolonged, arbitrary detention – or significant corruption. Known as the Global Magnitsky List, the list will be due annually on December 10 (Human Rights Day). Although the bill directs the President to prioritize cases where the victims were seeking to exercise or defend internationally recognized human and rights and freedoms, like freedom of religious, assembly, and expression, or expose illegal government activity, the President can act regardless of the victim. Sanctions on these individuals and entities will include: Prohibiting or revoking U.S. visas or other entry documentation for foreign individuals. Freezing and prohibiting U.S. property transactions of a foreign individual or entity if such property and property interests are in the United States; come within the United States; or are in, or come within, the control of a U.S. person or entity. This act also requires the Comptroller General of the United States to assess the implementation of the law and report to Congress, so that Congress can ensure it is being executed fully.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Chair Slams Verdicts in Navalny Trial

    WASHINGTON—Following Tuesday’s guilty verdicts and subsequent sentencing of Alexei and Oleg Navalny in Moscow, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: “I am deeply troubled by the guilty verdicts handed down in the latest manipulation of Russia’s so-called justice system against brothers Alexei and Oleg Navalny. The decision further demonstrates how the Russian government has warped what should be an independent voice and check on executive power into a tool to retaliate against its political opponents, continuing its ongoing crackdown on civil society in general.   “By punishing those who dare to voice their dissent, the Russian government undermines only itself. The Russian people deserve better than leaders who attempt to strangle their freedoms under the guise of deterring criminal activity.  As I noted in my statement Tuesday regarding the addition of names to the U.S. government’s visa ban and asset freeze lists, accountability and transparency are sadly lacking in President Putin’s Russia. “I remind Russia, as an OSCE participating State, that the Helsinki Final Act establishes principles and commitments including respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms within states which it has pledged to uphold. I urge the government of Russia to uphold its obligations and commitments to respect the freedoms of expression, assembly and of the media.  The Russian people must be allowed the right to voice their opinions openly, without fear of retaliation by their own government.” Alexei and Oleg Navalny were accused by the Russian authorities of fraud, charges which are viewed as politically motivated; Alexei Navalny is Russia’s leading anti-corruption crusader and a key member of the political opposition. In 2010, Alexei Navalny appeared at a Helsinki Commission briefing on fraud schemes in the Russian market.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Chair Welcomes Additions to Magnitsky List

    WASHINGTON—Following Monday’s addition of four Russian individuals to the Magnitsky List by the Obama Administration, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: “I welcome the announcement made by the Obama Administration that it has added four additional individuals to the visa ban and asset freeze lists mandated under the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act.  I applaud the work of the U.S. Departments of State and Treasury to continue to focus attention on Russian government officials implicated in the death of Sergei Magnitsky and to demonstrate America's willingness to penalize human right violators when their own country refuses to act. "These sanctions are not sanctions against Russia, but against individuals who have committed serious human rights violations against Russians. The American people will continue to support Russians like Sergei Magnitsky who speak out about injustice and seek redress. “While I am pleased that additional names have been added to the Magnitsky List, there remain a significant number of Russians – both government officials and private individuals – against whom evidence exists of their involvement in the conspiracy and cover-up of Magnitsky’s death in 2009, but who have yet to be added to the visa ban and asset freeze lists.  I strongly encourage the Administration to continue its examination of the information available with regard to these individuals and add them to the List. The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act must continue to be used to demonstrate to the world that the voices of those who seek justice and who speak out about human rights violations are heard and valued by the United States of America.”

  • Helsinki Commission Condemns Raid on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Bureau in Baku

    WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s raid by authorities in Azerbaijan on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Baku bureau, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: “The free and independent press in Azerbaijan remains under attack by the very authorities who should be most committed to its protection. Yesterday’s raid on RFE/RL’s Baku bureau continues the recent and deeply disturbing trend of the government of Azerbaijan to silence dissenting voices within the country, and comes hard on the heels of the recent arrest and pre-trial detention of Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist and contributor to RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service. “Once again, we call on the Azerbaijani authorities to immediately end their harassment of journalists and to respect the commitments they have made in the past, as a participating State in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

  • The Gang: 15 Years On and Still Silent

    Orest Deychakiwsky, Policy Advisor of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, presided the briefing on the screening of the documentary, "The Gang: 15 Years and Still Silent", with the participation of Freedom House and The German Marshall Fund. The documentary told the story of three opposition politicians and one journalist that disappeared under unknown circumstances. Mr.  Deychakiwsky was joined by Raisa Mikhailovskaya, a prominent Belarusian human rights defender and producer of the documentary, and Irina Krasovskaya, co-founder and president of "We Remember Foundation", which seeks justice for the politically oppressed in Belarus.  

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