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Smith: Repeal Romanian Criminal Defamation Laws

WASHINGTON – United States Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) today commended Romania for adopting an emergency ordinance reducing the amount of prison time individuals may serve for certain speech violations under Romania’s penal code.

“Romania’s May 23 ordinance is clearly a step in the right direction,” said Smith. “But even with reduced criminal penalties for insult and defamation, the possibility remains that individuals could be sent to prison in Romania today simply for expressing their views.”

The May 23 ordinance reduces the penalty for insult under article 205 of the penal code from a maximum of two years in prison to a fine; the penalty for defamation under article 206 is reduced from a maximum of three years in prison to two years imprisonment; and the penalty for insult or defamation of civil servants under article 239 is reduced from a maximum of seven years (under special circumstances) to four years.

The Helsinki Commission on May 24th issued an analysis of free speech issues in Romania.

“More than 12 years after the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu, it is unthinkable that Romanians could be sentenced to prison for expressing their opinions about government officials,” Smith said. “The May 23 ordinance falls short of bringing Romania’s penal code into compliance with freely undertaken international commitments. These changes are not enough. Defamation charges, adequately covered by civil codes, do not belong as part of a penal code. Similarly, prohibitions against ‘insults’ should not be in a civil or penal code at all.”

“The Romanian Government has the opportunity to further improve the May 23 ordinance before asking the parliament to pass legislation codifying these reforms. I hope they would seek an across-the-board repeal of criminal penalties for free speech, consistent with OSCE norms.”

Recent events have seriously undermined confidence in the Romanian Government’s commitment to free speech. Recent remarks by Defense Minister Ion Mircea Pascu were widely perceived as threats to journalists. Romania’s Government acknowledged the existence of a plan to counter criticisms of Romania in the free press. Both houses of Romania’s parliament passed a bill to require that print media give rights of reply to anyone “offended” by a news article.

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