THE CRIME OF DEFAMATION – STILL DEFENSIBLE IN A MODERN CONSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRACY?
Keywords:abolition of criminal defamation laws, freedom of expression
The crime of defamation, known as criminal libel in some jurisdictions, has (along with associated “insult laws”) been identified in the 2007 Declaration of Table Mountain of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers as the “greatest scourge of press freedom on the continent”. The Declaration proceeds to call for the abolition of such laws as a matter of urgency. This call has similarly been made in the Caribbean context by the International Press Institute and in the Commonwealth by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI). Writing on behalf of CHRI, Cowell notes the “chilling effect” of defamation laws (along with the procedural laws and regulations governing libel actions), defining this phenomenon as “partially … self-censorship on the part of individuals but in general…a wider culture of fear and uncertainty within society that limits free speech”. On this basis, Cowell argues (for CHRI) that criminal defamation represents the “clearest threat to the exercise of freedom of speech withCommonwealth states” and that the “threat of criminal sanction can act as a
significant and widespread deterrent against all freedom of speech”, and that they should therefore be repealed. Similar calls for
the abolition of criminal defamation laws have issued from the Organization of American States and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and in response to a complaint relating to a criminal libel conviction emanating from the Philippines, the United Nations Human Rights Council stated that “States parties should consider the decriminalization of defamation … application of the criminal law [in the context of defamation] should only be countenanced in the most serious of cases and imprisonment is never an appropriate remedy”.
Despite these calls for the abolition of the crime, it is noteworthy that the crime is retained in many jurisdictions, including European jurisdictions and Commonwealth countries. For example, every Commonwealth state in the English-speaking Caribbean (except Grenada) has specific criminal libel laws, Asian Commonwealth countries such as India, Singapore and Malaysia have corresponding criminal
defamation provisions, and so do African Commonwealth countries such as Botswana and South Africa. In addition, Commonwealth members such as Australia and Canada retain criminal defamation laws. An approach from the Commonwealth Press Union arguing for the abolition of the crime of defamation on the basis that such a crime threatens freedom of expression and is subject to abuse, being used in cases which do not involve the public interest, did not find favour with the Commonwealth Law ministers in their meeting in Accra in 2005.
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