Legal systems being misused to muzzle free speech – Unesco
MANILA, Philippines — The use of criminal defamation offenses like libel to restrict freedom of expression has grown worldwide along with the rise of policies criminalizing speech on the internet, according to a United Nations report.
In its latest report titled “The misuses of the judicial system to attack freedom of expression,” the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) said at least 44 countries had either adopted or amended laws and regulations threatening online freedom of expression and press freedom in the last five years.
Several states also strengthened punitive policies on libel, defamation, and insult, including through their integration in new legislation on cybersecurity and antiterrorism or as part of efforts to counter disinformation or hate speech, and which are “characterized by vague definitions that facilitate their abusive use.”
As a result, 148 journalists have been imprisoned on charges of defamation, with 47 of them combined with vague charges on ethnic or religious insult, fake news or antistate charges.
Unesco reiterated its call on governments to decriminalize defamation — broadly understood as the communication of a false statement that causes harm to a legal or natural person’s reputation — “given criminal charges’ significant chilling effect on freedom of expression and their disproportionality for the protection of reputations.”
“Defamation laws can serve the legitimate purpose of safeguarding reputations from being damaged by false statements of fact, but they require for an adequate balance to be struck between this aim and upholding freedom of expression,” according to the report, which was released in time for International Human Rights Day on Dec. 10.
Terror law in PH
“Tackling defamation under criminal law does not respect such balance, as it results in disproportionate measures to address the harm caused, which is also the case when civil actions result in excessively burdensome compensation,” it added.
The report did not give a per-country situationer, although it noted that Africa (39 out of 47) and the Asia-Pacific (38 of 44) still have the most UN member states retaining criminal defamation laws.
In particular, Unesco sounded the alarm on the current trend in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, where countries have adopted new legislation that could cause a chilling effect.
This includes the controversial Anti-Terrorism Act enacted in the Philippines in 2020, assailed by many human rights bodies, such as the UN Human Rights Council for its over-breadth and threat to freedom of expression.
The report also noted that 30 countries, mostly in the Asia-Pacific, had “weaponized” pandemic-related measures to intimidate, arrest and sanction journalists and dissidents who criticized governments for their handling of the health crisis.
Women journos targeted
Unesco also cited anecdotal evidence that women journalists were often more vulnerable to harassment than their male peers. Women journalists are also more likely to be marked for smear campaigns seeking to undermine their reputations, the Unesco report said.
“This calls for the development of adequate frameworks to tackle these instances of gender-based online threats, harassment and violence—which may be best addressed, on a case-by-case basis and upon thorough analysis, by actions other than a defamation claim,” it added.
Among other recommendations, the report called on states to repeal criminal defamation laws and to replace them with appropriate civil defamation measures.
They were asked to abolish or review other laws that criminalize expression through vague and overbroad definitions pertaining to disinformation, cybersecurity and national security, terrorism, hate speech, and public health.
The UN body also called for strategic litigation of criminal and civil defamation cases by tapping journalists and other relevant parties as amici curiae, or “friends of the court,” who could offer advice or insights in free speech cases.
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