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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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    The hearing addressed security, economic, and human rights dimensions of U.S. - Azerbaijan relations ahead of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly 2014 annual meeting, taking place in Azerbaijan. Helsinki Commission Chairman Benjamin Cardin opened the hearing by speaking to these three dimensions. Regarding human rights, there are several concerns. Azerbaijan's presidential elections fell short of international standards and there are several individuals who have been harassed and detained because of their desire to report on events in Azerbaijan, raising concerns about freedom of the media. Chairman Cardin was joined by Eric Rubin, Deputy Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of State, Thomas O. Melia, Miriam Lanskoy, and Brenda Shaffer.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Commemorates Romani Revolt at Auschwitz, Deportation of Hungarian Jews

    WASHINGTON - U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) marked the 70th anniversary of the mass deportation of Hungary’s Jews and the Romani revolt at Auschwitz death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. “On May 16, 70 years ago, 6,000 Roma at Auschwitz used improvised weapons to resist efforts to transport them from their barracks to the gas chambers. Sadly, their desperate and heroic efforts only delayed their mass murder," said Chairman Cardin. “I am appalled,” he continued, “when government officials, sometimes at the highest level, characterize Roma as criminals or ‘unadaptable’ using stereotypes that are reminiscent of Nazi racial theories. Remembering and teaching about Romani experiences during the Holocaust is critical in combating anti-Roma prejudices today.” Approximately 3,000 of those who participated in the Romani revolt were sent to Buchenwald and Ravensbruck concentration camps as forced labor, where most of them died. On August 2-3, 1944, the so-called ‘Gypsy Family Camp’ was liquidated and the remaining 2,879 Romani men, women and children were sent to the gas chambers. Altogether, 23,000 Romani people from 11 countries were deported to Auschwitz and approximately 19,000 perished. Some died as a result of inhumane medical experiments by Dr. Joseph Mengele. “This year also marks the 70th anniversary of the start of the final wave of Hungary’s war-time deportation of Jews,” noted Chairman Cardin. “Plans to empty the Romani camp at Auschwitz were, in fact, intended to make room for Jews arriving from Hungary.” Anti-Semitic legislation was introduced in Hungary with the 1920 Numerus Clausus, which established limits on the number of Jewish university students. In 1941, more than 17,000 Jews were deported from Hungary to German-occupied Kamenets-Podolsk, where they were executed. Between May 15 and July 9, 1944, 437,402 Hungarian Jews were deported in the largest deportation of Jews to Auschwitz in the shortest period of time from any country. One of every three Jews who died at Auschwitz was from Hungary. Cardin concluded, “I welcome the participation of Czech Prime Minister Sobotka in the memorial service held on May 10 at the site of the concentration camp for Roma at Lety. I urge the Czech Government to take steps to reflect the historic significance of this site for Romani survivors and their families everywhere.” Lety was the site of one of two concentration camps for Roma in the war-time Czech Republic. The construction of a large pork processing plant on the site during the communist period has generated continuing criticism. The Helsinki Commission supported the transfer of microfilm copies of its archives – the only known complete surviving archives of a Romani concentration camp – to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2000. On September 18, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial will hold a public symposium on new research regarding Roma and the Holocaust.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Cites Deterioration of Media Freedoms across OSCE Region

    WASHINGTON—In advance of World Press Freedom Day, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) and U.S. Representative Chris Smith (NJ), Co-Chairman of the Commission, addressed the deterioration of media freedom in Ukraine, and the continued presence of criminal defamation:  On the situation in Ukraine, Chairman Cardin stated: “I am deeply concerned by the rapidly degenerating state of media freedom precipitated by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Pro-Russian militias continue to harass, intimidate, and censor both Ukrainian and foreign journalists reporting on the situation in an attempt to quell criticism of separatist-instigated violence and upheaval. Free and independent media is a crucial component of the commitments adopted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of which Russia and Ukraine are participating States. I urge Russia to respect media independence and freedom in its own territory as well as in Ukraine.” “Many countries in the OSCE region continue to limit speech to an extraordinary degree,” said Co-Chairman Smith. “I’m particularly concerned by the rise of criminal defamation laws which make it increasingly difficult, and even dangerous, to criticize those in power. These libel and insult laws have an absolutely chilling effect on robust inquiry and the ability to hold politicians and others accountable. I commend the efforts of the OSCE and other organizations to call attention to these and other attacks against freedom of press. A strong and independent media, free from political pressure and censorship, is fundamental to sustainable and accountable democracy.” The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media reports regularly to the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna, including on developments in Ukraine. In advance of World Press Freedom Day, the Commission also noted concern about media freedom in the following countries: UKRAINE: In the town of Slavyansk, over 40 individuals, including many reporters, have been abducted by separatists and held hostage in various makeshift prisons. In the Donbas region, pro-Russian armed forces discontinued digital broadcasting of Ukrainian TV channels and replaced them with Russian ones, mirroring the disruption of Ukrainian press by Russian forces in Crimea. There have been several accounts of journalists being physically intimidated while reporting both in the field and within their offices. TURKEY: Turkey imprisoned more journalists in 2013 than any other country. Currently, legislation is going into effect in Turkey that expands the powers of secret services and stipulates 10 year prison sentences for journalists who publish leaked information. In the last few months, Turkey undertook an immense crackdown on social media, particularly by banning access to Twitter and YouTube. MACEDONIA: In Macedonia, media coverage, largely unbalanced in favor of the ruling party and against the opposition, was a leading criticism of the conduct of last week’s presidential and parliamentary elections. This bias is symptomatic of the great regression in media freedom noted in Macedonia in recent years. Journalists and news sources not allied with the government tend to face increased scrutiny and legal hurdles. KAZAKHSTAN: Recent changes to Kazakhstan’s legislation are likely to further restrict media and access to the Internet. New rules control what the media can report during a state of emergency; a new code criminalizes “dissemination of false information” that harms “interests of society or of the state”; and pending legislation would allow the government to shut websites and other communication networks if they disseminate “harmful” information or call for “extremist” activities. Kazakhstan also has closed virtually all independent newspapers for minor infractions of publishing regulations or on charges of extremism. CROATIA: In Croatia, where the legal definition of “insult” is vague and open to arbitrary enforcement, there are currently over 40 pending criminal insult cases against journalists. This situation, whether or not the cases result in convictions, could lead to increased self-censorship in the media. AZERBAIJAN: The status of press and media in Azerbaijan is decidedly not free. Criminal defamation is still punishable with up to three years in prison. Media and NGO movements that aim to create space for media freedom have been checked at every turn, through various techniques ranging from ignoring lawsuits seeking access to information, to pressing criminal charges on journalists. Most recently, Azerbaijani journalist Rauf Mirkadyrov was arrested and charged with espionage. 

  • Co-Chairman Smith Responds to Turkish Government Move to Block Twitter

    WASHINGTON - Responding to the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s action in blocking access to Twitter in Turkey, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, released the following statement: “I urge the Prime Minister to answer his critics directly rather than try to silence them. This would show respect for the Turkish people and for his responsibilities as an elected official. In recent years the Turkish government has shown a troubling propensity to target journalists as well as Web sites and social media, as has been amply documented by the United States government and independent human rights monitors. Blocking Twitter violates Turkey’s commitments in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to free expression and freedom of the media.” According to reports, Prime Minister Erdogan used court orders to block Twitter in Turkey on Thursday, March 21. The Prime Minister himself has a Twitter account, however, as does the President, who tweeted his hope that the ban would be short-lived. The U.S. Department of State reports comprehensively on human rights in Turkey in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. Co-Chairman Smith is also the Chairman of the House panel that oversees human rights worldwide and the author of the Global Online Freedom Act, H.R. 491, human rights legislation that would promote Internet freedom around the world.

  • Chairman Cardin Statement on Harassment of RFE/RL Journalist in Azerbaijan

    WASHINGTON - Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) made the following statement today in response to the continued harassment of RFE/RL journalist Ms. Khadija Ismayilova: “I am concerned for the safety and liberty of RFE/RL journalist Ms. Khadija Ismayilova. Ms. Ismayilova has been the target of consistent and sordid attacks by the government because of her investigative journalism. The current charges against her include espionage on behalf of the United States. These charges are clearly fabricated and punitive in nature. The Helsinki Commission calls on the Government of Azerbaijan to stop its harassment of all journalists and to respect freedom of the media, a commitment it has undertaken as a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). “Ms. Ismayilova’s harassment and detention are part of an unfortunate string of politically-motivated arrests of Azerbaijani’s who are exercising their rights to free speech. The list of those jailed on criminal charges in the period prior to the 2013 presidential election, including presidential hopeful Mr. Ilgar Mammadov, is troubling. Even election monitors such as Mr. Anar Mammadi, have not been spared. Mr. Mammadi has been in pre-trial detention for two months. As the Government of Azerbaijan prepares to host the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meeting in July of this year, we call on the government to respect the rule of law and other fundamental freedoms that are essential to comprehensive security.”

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission to Hold Briefing on Human Rights in Turkmenistan

    WASHINGTON - The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) today announced the following briefing: Disappeared in Turkmenistan’s Prisons: Are They Still Alive?  Thursday, February 20, 2014 3:00 p.m. Cannon House Office Building Room 122 Ten years ago, the Organization for Cooperation in Europe’s Moscow Mechanism was invoked against Turkmenistan after hundreds were arrested in the wake of an alleged coup attempt. The resulting report detailed the lack of rule of law during the arrest process and subsequent trials, as well as the absence of information about the health and whereabouts of those imprisoned. And despite years of inquiries and a change in regime in Turkmenistan, the fate of many of those who have disappeared into Turkmenistan’s prisons over the past ten years remains unknown. Their families deserve answers, and this briefing will take a new look at these cases. Turkmenistan has been characterized as one of the world’s most repressive countries, with virtually no freedom of expression, association, or assembly. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom again recommended in 2013 that the Secretary of State designate Turkmenistan a “country of particular concern,” and the State Department placed Turkmenistan on its “Tier 2 Watch List” for trafficking in persons - the second lowest category. Imprisonment has been used as a tool for political retaliation against those who do speak out, and Turkmenistan’s prisons – closed to outside monitoring - are notorious for torture, poor conditions, and disease. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Rachel Denber, Deputy Director, Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch Catherine Fitzpatrick, Independent Expert on Eurasia Peter Zalmayev, Director, Eurasia Democracy Initiative Kate Watters, Executive Director, Crude Accountability Boris Shikmuradov, Editor, Gundogar.org

  • Kyiv Ministerial Held Amid Protests

    On December 5 and 6, 2013, Kyiv hosted the 20th meeting of the Ministerial Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe while hundreds of thousands of protestors occupied Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kyiv’s central square. Although as 2013 OSCE Chair-in-Office, Ukraine had successfully shepherded a package of decisions to adoption in Kyiv, the meeting was dominated by demonstrations taking place throughout the country triggered on November 21 by the Ukrainian government’s suspension of preparations to sign integration agreements with the EU. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland represented the United States. She began the Ministerial by meeting with civil society activists, which she described as her “most important event” in Kyiv. In her opening statement at the Ministerial, she highlighted three “worrying trends” in OSCE participating States: the persecution of journalists, the rising intolerance of minorities, and “democratic backsliding” into restrictive laws and practices that violate civil liberties.

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