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Blasphemy -- the Oldest Form of 'Insult Law'

Blasphemy -- the Oldest Form of 'Insult Law' -- Revived in 2006

Journalists in more than 70 countries were punished, sometimes with lengthy prison sentences, for allegedly "insulting" the dignity of officials or institutions in 2006, according to a report due for release on April 11 by the World Press Freedom Committee.

"It's A Crime: How Insult Laws Stifle Press Freedom" updates WPFC's comprehensive 2000 survey of insult laws and includes reports of laws invoked as well as progress toward reform or repeal of such laws during 2006.

The survey is underwritten by a group of Danish media institutions (a news agency, a TV channel and two newspaper foundations) brought together by Joergen Ejboel, Chairman of JP-Politikenahus. The four groups are Ritzau Bureau I/S, TV 2, Jyllands-Postens Fund, and Politiken-Fonden.

More than 10 years ago, in 1996, WPFC launched a global campaign for the elimination of insult laws, carry-overs from Roman times when emperors were considered divine and were protected by such laws from injury to their dignity. European monarchs adopted the same principle, in the form of the concept of lese majeste - offense against the sovereign. During the era of colonial rule, the colonies of several European powers, including France and the Netherlands, incorporated such laws into their own statutes, and maintained them past independence.

Today, insult laws are used to discourage criticism of officials, to protect government actions from scrutiny and to punish journalists who seek and report information.

This study represents a continuation of WPFC's campaign against insult laws and broadens this to include examination of the related issues of defamation and blasphemy, inspired by global protests over publication of a series of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.

Some Muslims claimed at the cartoons, first published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and subsequently published around the world, were insulting to Islam. Supporters of the publication argued that the cartoons represented a valid commentary and important public examination of current issues.

"It's a Crime …" demonstrates that in most of those cases in which someone claims insult to his dignity or to state institutions, political differences are involved. "Where the defendants are overwhelmingly editorial critics of the ruling party, dissenters, minority voices, or activists in an opposition party, the conclusion is inescapable that the insult law is an important weapon in the armory of the powerful to punish and thus chill expressions of opposition," WPFC Chairman Richard N. Winfield writes in the report's foreword.

Numerous international organizations, including the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Organization of American States, have urged repeal or reform of insult and criminal defamation laws.

Some countries have responded by taking measures to start that process. Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Chile, Costa Rica, Ghana, Paraguay, Peru and Togo have all moved toward either elimination or decriminalization of insult laws. Other countries, such as Egypt, Turkey and Russia, are using them vigorously. Romania passed a law to decriminalize defamation, but later reversed the decision.

The aim of the World Press Freedom Committee's latest study is to show how the continued use of these laws is detrimental to press freedom, and to encourage nations maintaining such laws to take a leadership role in eliminating them.


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