Defamation Laws in Europe 2016-2017

 CountryType of Law 
 
 

Criminal Defamation Laws in the EU and EU Candidate Countries

Defamation is a Criminal Offence Punishable with Imprisonment
Defamation is a Criminal Offence (Not Punishable with Imprisonment)
Criminal Defamation Laws Repealed*
*Other related criminal provisions, such as defamation of the state, may remain on the books. Click on country for detailed information.

The Abuse of Defamation Laws in Europe 2016-2017:
Exposing and Addressing the Threat to Media Freedom and Pluralism

Throughout 2016 and 2017, IPI is working to expose and combat the negative effects that disproportionate defamation laws have on press freedom and freedom of expression in Europe. This project is an extension of IPI’s previous work in this area, which included the creation of the Media Laws Database.

In particular, this project aims to:

(1) continue to research and monitor the misuse of defamation law in the EU and EU candidate countries;
(2) expand monitoring and advocacy work in two countries where the media are heavily affected by the misuse of defamation law, Greece and Turkey;
(3) examine the impact of civil defamation laws, with a particular focus on self-censorship; and
(4) conduct awareness and capacity-building activities designed to strengthen the rights of journalists in defamation cases.

More information on our work can be found in the tabs below.

This project is supported by a grant from the European Commission.

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This project is generously supported by a grant from the European Commission.

Background

In Brief

European countries are often regarded as strong protectors of media freedom. But when it comes to defamation laws, EU member states fall dramatically short of fulfilling international standards on freedom of expression. The vast majority of member states maintain criminal defamation laws that threaten the media’s ability to report on matters of public interest. IPI’s overall advocacy work on defamation in Europe – including research, public statements, campaigns, and missions – aims at:

  • The repeal of all criminal defamation laws
  • Ensuring that civil defamation laws contain important safeguards against abuse, including proper defences and caps on damages
  • Promoting self-regulatory bodies as an alternative method of redressing damage done to reputation.

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 Legal Landscape: Out of Balance

  • Just five out of 28 EU member states have repealed criminal defamation and insult laws, despite broad international consensus among legal experts and press freedom advocates that criminal punishments for defamation represent a disproportionate restriction on free expression. In particular, 17 EU countries still have criminal insult laws on the books.
  • Journalists and others can still go to prison for defamation and/or insult in 17 EU member states.
  • In six member states defaming a public official is punished more severely than defaming a private citizen. It’s supposed to the opposite – according to both longstanding international standards as well as the logic of democratic governance.
  • Five EU states maintain archaic laws prohibiting insult to the royal family, also known as lèse-majesté. It gets worse: They are still applied today.
  • Journalists and others can go to prison for offending the “honour of the state” in seven EU countries.
  • National flags, anthems and coats of arms aren’t alive and they don’t have reputations. But if you offend them, you may end up behind bars in 14 EU member states.
  • Blasphemy (or the related offence of religious insult) is a criminal offence in all or parts of 13 EU countries.
  • Just two EU member states, Austria and Malta, cap damages for harm done to reputation in civil law. This means that journalists and media outlets can – and do – face libel claims for millions (and millions) of euros. More detailed legal information can be found in the legal database or in IPI’s January 2015 report on criminal defamation law in the EU, Out of Balance.

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Advocating for Change

Through our research, public statements, campaigns, and missions, we’re working to bring Europe’s defamation laws up to international standards and set a strong example for the rest of the world.

In recent years, IPI and its partners have led missions to Croatia, Lithuania, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain and Greece. These missions have contributed to the reform of defamation law in Croatia, Lithuania, Slovenia and Greece.

Together with our partners at English PEN, we’re leading the campaign for an EU directive on repealing criminal libel.

Our analyses and reports are being used by partners at the national level to kick-start reform campaigns.

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The Threat to Press Freedom in Europe and the World

As long as they remain on the books, Europe’s criminal defamation laws are convenient tools to punish criticism and quell unwanted investigative journalism. From Italy to Slovakia to Latvia, European journalists continue to face criminal prosecution and conviction, and in some cases imprisonment, simply for doing their jobs. The chilling effect that can arises from such cases threatens the free flow of information necessary for democratic decision-making.

  • In March 2015, a court in Athens sentenced prominent Greek investigative journalist Kostas Vaxevanis – put on trial in 2013 for revealing an IMF list of suspected tax evaders in Greece – was sentenced to 26 months in prison (suspended for three years) for libelling business tycoon Andreas Vgenopoulos in an article describing Vgenopoulos’s alleged role in the 2012-2013 Cypriot financial crisis. An appeals court overturned his sentence in September 2016.
  • Two German investigative journalists were convicted in 2010 of criminal defamation over their reporting on alleged links between judicial officials and an underage brothel. Their conviction was overturned on appeal after a public outcry.
  • In Turkey, criminal defamation has become one of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s tools of choice to silence critics since assuming his country’s highest office last year. Hundreds of criminal cases were filed against journalists, academics, politicians and ordinary citizens.
  • A political adviser to Iceland’s Interior Minister in Oct. 2014 took advantage of Iceland’s criminal defamation laws to request prison time for two journalists who mistakenly identified her as a target in a police investigation into a government leak – even though the newspaper that published the story apologised within hours.

Criminal defamation laws are certainly only part of the problem. The abuse of civil defamation laws can cause an equally harmful chilling effect. This is particularly the case when non-pecuniary damages (compensation for emotional suffering) are not capped in law, allowing plaintiffs to request exorbitant sums.

  • After the Finnish broadcast YLE revealed that former Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša had solicited bribes from a Finnish defence contractor, Janša sued YLE and the journalist who reported the story for €1.5 million in damages. After years of costly legal battles, Janša lost, and in 2013 was sentenced to two years in prison for corruption.
  • In Portugal, an investment firm sued the weekly newspaper Expresso and one of its journalists for a whopping €70 million in pecuniary (economic) and non-pecuniary damages after the paper scrutinised the firm’s financial situation and its dealings with a telecom company linked to the Portuguese state.

But there’s still more to it than that. Despite the challenges noted in this report, EU member states are among the globe’s biggest proponents of media freedom and therefore are often referred to as benchmarks for measuring the progress of more restrictive governments. Put simply, the EU sets an example. And when things are not in order at home, it is more difficult to justify pressing for changes abroad. The existence of archaic laws in the EU makes it easy for other countries to claim that they are following European standards and to reject the criticism of foreign governments, international civil society, and local journalists and activists fighting for change.

The Threat to Press Freedom in Europe and the World

Defamation Laws in Greece 2016-2017

Greece’s defamation laws remain a serious hindrance to investigative journalism. Criminal defamation cases remain a routine possibility and courts continue to hand down prison sentences. In civil caes, overly plaintiff-friendly defamation laws previously allowed powerful figures to punish or suppress unwanted media investigations through the threat of financial ruin. A civil law reform supported by IPI was passed by Greek lawmakers last year.

Research and Monitoring

In a series of articles as well as an in-depth report, IPI will be profiling the use of defamation laws against the media in Greece, with a particular focus on changes brought about by the civil law reform. Read articles published under this series so far:

‘Frozen cases’ aim to chill investigative reporting in Greece (Oct 10, 2016)
How a €3 million libel suit led a Greek journalist to fight for legal change (Sep 14, 2016)
Greek editor sentenced for criticising school director’s extremist views (Sep 5, 2016)

Awareness and Capacity Building

From October 18-20, 2016, IPI will jointly organise a workshop on Investigative Journalism and Defamation Laws in Greece. As part of this workshop, IPI and the Media Legal Defence Initiative will lead a one-day seminar dedicated to providing investigative journalists with critical tools to report confidently in the public interest without incurring legal consequences for defamation. This seminar are based on IPI and MLDI’s manual on freedom of expression and defamation laws, a Greek-language copy of which will be provided to all participants.

Research and Monitoring

Defamation Laws in Turkey 2016-2017

Although defamation laws represent a threat to press freedom in many countries in Europe, the breathtaking scope with which they are abused in Turkey to silence voices critical of the government and limit the free flow of news and information demands urgent action. In particular, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has overseen the filing of nearly 2,000 criminal cases of ‘insult to the president’ against journalists, writers, academics, politicians, university students, teenage schoolchildren and even beauty queens. The result is an entire society afraid to speak its mind.

Research and Monitoring

In May 2016, IPI, together with IPI’s Turkey National Committe, convened a high-level meeting of editors, lawyers and civil society activists in Istanbul to identify the most problematic elements of Turkish defamation law and practice and define a road map on how to move forward in terms of combating the negative effects on media freedom.

The detailed conclusions from this meeting, in English and Turkish, have been shared with participants and IPI’s partners, and will be released publicly at a later point.

IPI coverage:

Turkey jails journalists as president drops insult cases (Aug 1, 2016)
‘Major repression’ of Turkey media brought to UN Human Rights Council (Jun 3, 2016)

Research and Monitorng

Civil Defamation Laws in Europe 2016-2017

In addition to criminal defamation laws, the abuse of civil defamation represents a serious threat to press and freedom and the free flow of news and information. This abuse often takes the form of exorbitant claims for damages that would spell financial ruin for even the wealthiest media corporations. Courts do not always observe the principle of proportionality and the financial burden on small and independent media can lead to closure. In some cases, the purpose of filing lawsuits may not be to actually go to court and collect damages, but simply to force defendants who fear the financial consequences into silence.

As part of this project, IPI is conducting in-depth research on compensation levels of civil defamation cases across the EU.

Research and Monitoring

Exposing the Misuse of Defamation Laws

Capacity Building

Journalists need to know their rights, and they need to be able to defend them. The manual Freedom of Expression, Media Law and Defamation, published by IPI in cooperation with the Media Legal Defence Initiative, offers support to journalists and lawyers involved in defamation cases by way of summarising European and international principles on defamation and free expression.

Currently available in English, Croatian, Macedonian, Portuguese and Spanish, the manual is currently being translated into Greek, Italian, Russian and Turkish.

The manual is complemented by an online e-learning series that delivers the manual’s key content in a series of easy-to-follow videos.

 

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