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Defamation Laws Curb Free Press

So-called insult laws are used to curb a free press. In its latest report, the World Press Freedom Committee identifies countries that prosecute journalists for allegedly insulting the head of state.

In Egypt, Turkey, and Russia, insult laws are used vigorously to silence journalists critical of the government. A case in point occurred in Russia in May 2006. The Sverdlovsky District Court in Belgorod held a closed-door trial involving a claim filed by Governor Yevgeny Savchenko against journalist Olga Kitova for writing an article critical of the governor. Mr. Savchenko received approximately thirty-seven thousand dollars in so-called moral damages.

Romania passed a law to decriminalize defamation, but later reversed the decision. Insult laws are also enforced in Iran, Belarus, Zimbabwe, and Morocco. In Venezuela, the government uses very restrictive criminal defamation laws to intimidate the media. In many countries in the Middle East, insult laws are rarely used because journalists have been intimidated so severely that they practice self-censorship.

Marilyn Greene, editor of the World Press Freedom Committee report, said that the issue of insult laws remains important "because as long as journalists are afraid to fully scrutinize the actions and policies of their nations' public officials, for fear of arrest or other punishment, the publics in those countries are without access to the news and information they need to make intelligent decisions and choices about their own government."

Some countries have begun to respond. Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Chile, Costa Rica, Ghana, Paraguay, Peru, and Togo have all moved toward either eliminating or decriminalizing insult laws.

Clearly, insult laws are incompatible with the principles of democracy and free expression. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has stated, “there is no more important pillar of democracy than a free and active press.” Through the Human Rights Democracy Fund, the United States fund NGOs [non-governmental organizations] that promote a free press abroad, and defend journalists under threat. The U.S. will continue to defend freedom of the press, and in particular to work for the repeal of insult laws wherever they remain in effect.