Mr. Speaker, on November 8, Slovak Parliamentarian Tomas Galbavy, a member of the ruling Slovak Democratic Coalition, introduced an amendment to the Slovak penal code which would repeal articles that make defamation of certain public officials a crime. My fellow parliamentarian made an important stand at a time when many seem to believe that free speech is an expendable luxury.
As Co-Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I commend Deputy Galbavy for his efforts to strengthen one of the most important cornerstones of democracy. The criminalization of slander, libel or defamation, as well as laws which purport to protect public officials or bodies from “insult,” is a longstanding concern of Members of the Helsinki Commission. In fact, I have repeatedly raised concern about the use – or, more correctly – abuse of such laws.
Most recently, at Commission hearings in September and October, I expressed concern about the use of such laws in the current crackdown on independent media in Azerbaijan. In November, “insult laws” were again used as an excuse to close an independent paper in Azerbaijan. Frankly, Mr. Speaker, as an elected politician, I get “insulted” every day of the week – and twice on Sunday. It’s part of the job. I am not alone in my views. At OSCE meetings, the United States has repeatedly called for such laws to be repealed. Similarly, 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 concluded that “criminal defamation laws should be abolished.” Simply put, Mr. Speaker, Slovakia’s current criminal defamation law – a holdover from a bygone era – is not consistent with the international commitments and obligations it has undertaken as a free and independent state.
I am particularly concerned that journalist Alex Kratky has been charged with a criminal offense for criticizing a speech delivered by Slovak President Schuster. If found guilty, Kratky faces two years in prison for his opinions. Unfortunately, the Galbavy amendment was defeated by the narrowest of margins, failing by just one vote. Although Deputy Speaker Pavol Hrusovksy voted in favor of the amendment, most of the other parliamentary leaders either abstained or did not participate in the vote. The Slovak Parliament came so close to doing the right thing, so close to demonstrating the kind of regional leadership so desperately needed, but stopped short by one vote.
I know the Slovak Parliament has a great deal of work before it now, and I particularly appreciate the work of the Parliament and the Government in supporting the war on terrorism and their efforts to ensure that U.N. Security Council Resolution 1373 is fully implemented. At the same time, I believe that there are still opportunities for Slovakia to act on the important human rights issue of criminal defamation. First, the Constitutional Court could declare the provisions of Articles 102, 103 and 206 unconstitutional – especially bearing in mind, as Deputy Minister Lubomir Fogas has noted, Slovakia’s Constitution gives priority to Slovakia’s international human rights obligations. I hope, however, that Slovakia’s elected leaders will not wait for the court to act, since that can take a long time. Instead the initiative could be reconsidered and, with a few more Deputies voting to repeal defamation and libel from the criminal code, Slovakia would set an example for other countries to emulate.