Insult laws threaten press freedom, new UNC-CH global research shows

August 15, 2000

NEWS CHAPEL HILL -- Imagine being fined for calling a politician an idiot.

That's just what happened to Gerhard Oberschlick, an Austrian journalist who taunted Joerg Haider, governor of Carinthia province and a well-known neo-Nazi sympathizer.

Oberschlick violated article 115 of Austria's criminal code, which calls for imprisonment or fines for insults. The Austrian Court of Appeal upheld the insult conviction, and it took the European Court of Human Rights to eventually overturn it in 1997.

In many countries, Oberschlick would have fared much worse, said Dr. Ruth Walden, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication who spent more than two years studying insult laws around the world. The World Press Freedom Committee sponsored her study and recently published her findings.

"In more than 100 of the world's states, journalists can be imprisoned for 'insulting' government officials and institutions," Walden wrote. "Regardless of ... how (the laws) are worded, the result is the same: They are used to stifle and punish political discussion and dissent, editorial comment and criticism, satire and even news that the government would rather hide from the public."

Before the committee asked her to do the study, she was "aware that a lot of nations had repressive press laws," said Walden, an expert on U.S. media law. "But after some initial research, I was amazed and concerned to find such laws even in countries like France and Austria that we think of as liberal democracies. I hope this study will serve as an impetus for insult laws to be repealed by legislatures and struck down by courts."

Many nations in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Africa and South America moving toward democracy have adopted insult laws based on statutes in some Western countries and former colonial powers, she said. Such laws, which often are vague and differ from civil defamation laws, can not only hurt individuals, they also can undermine democracies by exerting a chilling effect on the free flow of ideas and information and on justice. They date back to fifth century B.C. Roman laws.

Studying insult laws was complex because it involved so many different countries and languages, Walden said. The Internet and e-mail exchanges with people around the world helped tremendously, as did various journalist organizations.

"Figuring out precisely what a journalist, author, editor or publisher was even charged with was often difficult, if not impossible," she said. "The cases I focused on in the study were those that most clearly resulted from insults.

"Also, my inability to learn the outcomes of many cases was frustrating. I'd see a report that a journalist was charged with insulting a government official, but I'd often be unable to find any further information on the case. In many instances, that was because the law was being used to intimidate journalists, with no real intention of prosecution."

Countries with the most nightmarish and often vague insult laws include Iran, Cuba, Croatia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, China, Cameroon, the Republic of Congo, Tunisia, Yemen and Peru, but many others were found, the professor said.

In Ivory Coast, for example, anyone can be fined up to $5,000 and jailed for two years for offending the president through "any expression that is offensive or contemptuous ... about either his public or private life, and which is of such nature as to undermine his honor or dignity."

Courts fined two journalists $3,300 and jailed them for suggesting that President Henri Bedie might not have been born in Ivory Coast. Three others were given two-year sentences for satirically saying that Bedie's presence at the African Championship Cup final "hexed" that nation's soccer team.

In 1997, Hector Palacio Ruiz, president of Cuba's Democratic Solidarity Party, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for telling a German television station that Fidel Castro was "crazy" and did not fulfill his government's obligations. A judge sentenced Barnardo Arevalo Padron, director of a news agency, to six years after he reported a helicopter carried meat from a small town to Havana while residents of the town went hungry.

Peru revoked the citizenship of Baruch Ivcher, the Israeli-born, naturalized Peruvian majority owner of Lima's Channel 2 television station, which regularly criticized the government and military and reported government-sponsored torture and wiretapping. Officials later charged Ivcher with tax evasion and issued an international warrant for his arrest.

In Iran, a cartoonist was sentenced to 10 years in prison for insulting the late Ayatollah Khomeini in a cartoon accompanying an article about the poor state of Iranian soccer. The government charged that the face of the soccer player, who was missing an arm and a leg, resembled Khomeini.

Even in countries with generally free presses, journalists can be attacked for what they write, Walden found. Amos Keinan, for example, a columnist for Israel's largest daily, Yediot Ahronot, was convicted of contempt in 1995 and fined after criticizing Israeli courts for giving lenient sentences to Israelis convicted of attacking Palestinians.

In 1997, a Paris court in effect invited Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to invoke an 1881 French law making it a crime to insult foreign heads of state in a suit against Jean Daniel, editor and publisher of The New Observer. Daniel had called Hussein "a Caligula-style tyrant" who had allowed thousands of children to die.

Courts jailed a writer for calling the president of Kazakhstan a goat and fined another in Poland for dubbing President Lech Walesa the Polish equivalent of a son of a bitch.

"Such laws are signs of weakness," wrote James H. Ottoway Jr. and Leonard H. Marks, president and treasurer, respectively, of the World Press Freedom Committee. "Governments that resort to them fear their press and publics and want to suppress truly free expression. We need to stop merely hacking at the constantly reappearing branches of these weed trees and start on the harder but longer-lasting work of rooting them out.

"We need to see to it that these insult laws are finally recognized for what they really are - an insult to democracy, an insult to human rights and, for us in the news media, a special insult to press freedom."
Note: Walden can be reached at (919) 962-4088 or at

Contact: David Williamson, (919) 962-8596.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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