Media Rights Agenda (MRA) last month joined 35 other freedom of expression organizations from around the world in a joint action, led by ActiveWatch Media Monitoring Agency in Romania, against the proposed re-criminalization of libel and insult by the Romanian Parliament.
A joint petition, endorsed by 36 organizations, which are members or partners of the Toronto, Canada-based global network of free expression organizations, International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), was addressed to Romanian Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, and dispatched to him on December 17, 2013 as well as to Valeriu Zgonea, Head of the Chamber of Deputies and Crin Antonescu, the Head of the Senate in the Romanian Parliament.
The joint petition arose from the action of the Romanian Parliament, which voted on December 10, 2013, to recriminalize insult and libel as part of a wider amendment of the Penal Code, thereby reversing the progress made by Romania over the last several years to legally protect the right to freedom of expression.
The free expression organizations complained in the petition that the decision to re-criminalize insult and libel, taken without any public consultation, rendered useless 10 years of efforts to de-criminalize them and would remove Romania from the list of democracies that reject the idea that a person can be imprisoned for her or his words.
According to the free expression organizations, the criminalization of insult and libel is a serious attack on the right to freedom of expression, as it works to intimidate voices who criticise the structures of power in society and expose corruption, abuse and other wrongdoings.
They therefore called on the Romanian authorities to remove from the Criminal Code, Articles 205-207, which re-criminalize insult and libel, arguing that “the current form of the law is a serious assault on press freedom and freedom of expression in general.”
Below is the full text of the petition and the list of signatories:
16 December 2013
H. E. Victor Ponta
Prime Minister of Romania
Office of the Social Democratic Party of Romania
Sos. Kiseleff, nr.10, Sector 1
CC: Valeriu Zgonea, Head of the Chamber of Deputies
Crin Antonescu, Head of the Senate
We the undersigned 36 organisations, members and partners of IFEX, express our deep concern that the Romanian Parliament voted to recriminalise insult and libel as part of a wider amendment of the Penal Code, thus undoing the progress made by Romania during the last eight years to legally protect the right to freedom of expression. Criminalisation of insult and libel is a serious attack on this right, as it works to intimidate voices who criticise the structures of power in society and expose corruption, abuse and other wrongdoings.
These proposed changes may not take effect if Romanian President Traian Basescu vetoes them, as he has promised to do. In this case, the law will return to Parliament where it will be subject to a new voting procedure. We urge the President to follow through on his commitments, and ask Romanian authorities to do everything in their power to prevent these amendments from becoming law.
In 2006, the Parliament repealed offenses of insult and libel, a decision that was overruled in 2007 and 2013 by the Constitutional Court. However, Parliament voted on 10 December 2013 to reintroduce insult and libel to the Criminal Code.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) congratulated Romania after insult and libel were decriminalised. This initial decriminalisation also improved the rating of the country in international human rights rankings, such as that of Reporters Without Borders.
In 2011, a bill (Pl-x 680/2011) was proposed to repeal a single article, Article 74/1. Under suspicious circumstances, this bill was radically changed the night before being adopted by the Chamber of Deputies during the plenum of 10 December 2013 (International Human Rights Day) by introducing, among other provisions, the offenses of libel and insult.
This decision, taken without any public consultation, rendered useless ten years of efforts to decriminalise insult and libel. It removes Romania from the list of democracies who reject the idea that a person can be imprisoned for her/his words.
We remind politicians that decisions of the Constitutional Court which are referenced as a pretext to introduce the offenses of insult and libel in the Criminal Code must comply with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the jurisprudence of the ECHR – which have the force of law in Romania. Imposing an obligation for defamation to be criminally sanctioned is not supported by any article of the ECHR or by any judgment by the European Court of Human Rights.
On the other hand, due to the haste with which the amendments to the Criminal Code were adopted, another obsolete article was passed, namely Article 207, or burden of proof. This article is in clear contradiction with ECHR jurisprudence, demanding those who make a statement to prove the absolute truth of the facts narrated – proof that is impossible in many situations, especially regarding journalistic investigations in sensitive or complex cases. According to the jurisprudence of the ECHR, (see the caseDalban v. Romania for example), those who make a statement, even false or exaggerated, cannot be penalised in any way if they prove the existence of a reasonable factual basis for their statement.
It is imperative that Articles 205-207, which recriminalise insult and libel, be removed from the Criminal Code. The current form of the law is a serious assault on press freedom and freedom of expression in general.
ActiveWatch – Media Monitoring Agency
Albanian Media Institute
Arabic Network for Human Rights Information
Association of Independent Electronic Media
Bahrain Center for Human Rights
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
Cartoonists Rights Network International
Center for Independent Journalism – Romania
Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility
Centre for Independent Journalism – Malaysia
Centro de Archivos y Acceso a la Información Pública
Foundation for Press Freedom – FLIP
Globe International Center
Human Rights Network for Journalists – Uganda
Independent Journalism Center – Moldova
Initiative for Freedom of Expression – Turkey
Institute for the Studies on Free Flow of Information
Institute of Mass Information
Instituto Prensa y Sociedad de Venezuela
International Press Institute
International Publishers Association
Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance
Media Foundation for West Africa
Media Rights Agenda
Pacific Islands News Association
Pakistan Press Foundation
Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms – MADA
Reporters Without Borders
World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers
Association for the Defense of Human Rights in Romania – the Helsinki Committee
Association for Technology and Internet