Category: Press Releases, Europe, Azerbaijan
By: Steven M. Ellis, IPI Senior Press Freedom Adviser

IPI urges Azerbaijan’s president to veto criminal defamation expansion

Parliament has approved bill to target information posted online

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev answers questions during a news conference at Prague Castle in Prague on April 5, 2012. REUTERS/David W Cerny

By: Steven M. Ellis, IPI Senior Press Freedom Adviser

VIENNA, May 15, 2013 – The International Press Institute (IPI) today urged Azerbaijan’s president to veto a bill that would expand the criminal offences of slander and insult to apply to information posted online.

The country’s National Assembly on Tuesday approved the proposal, which now goes before President Ilham Aliyev, who in 2011 set forth a National Action Plan on Human Rights that prescribed steps to decriminalise defamation.

The bill would broaden the reach of Criminal Code Articles 147 and 148, which currently target only slander or insults made “publicly or in mass media shown products”.

As recently as September, Presidential Adviser Ali Hasanov told IPI representatives that Azerbaijan’s government hoped to repeal criminal defamation laws by the end of 2012.

IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie criticised the National Assembly’s move, saying that it represented a “step in the wrong direction”.

“Criminal defamation laws are unnecessary and serve only to chill investigative reporting, to protect public officials and certain businessmen from necessary scrutiny and to deny the basic human right of freedom of expression,” she said. “Civil remedies are sufficient to achieve justice when slander or insult is alleged, and such remedies are in line with international standards that call for the least restrictive sanctions in such cases.

Instead, Bethel McKenzie added, Azerbaijan should fully implement the 2011 Action Plan and it should use changes in criminal defamation law as an opportunity to bring civil defamation law in line with international standards and the recommendations of the European Court of Human Rights and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Those recommendations include drawing clear distinctions between statements of fact and value judgments; making available the defences of truth, public interest and reasonable publication; and ensuring respect for the need for proportionality between sanctions imposed and the injury to reputation suffered.

Slander remains punishable with fines of approximately €100 to 500, up to 240 hours of community service and “corrective work” of up to one year or up to six months of imprisonment. It carries even harsher penalties if the statement alleges someone committed a serious crime. Penalties for insults are similar, but offenders can face fines of approximately €300 to 1,000.

OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović today also called on Aliyev to veto the bill broadening criminal slander and insult. She further noted a number of recent developments in Azerbaijan that she said were “particularly worrying in the run up to the presidential and parliamentary elections”.

Aliyev is currently seeking a third, five-year term of office in a presidential election set for Oct. 16. Parliamentary elections are next set to take place in 2015.

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