A defamation reform bill pending before the Lithuanian Parliament would constitute a welcome step in the right direction, but should be further amended to meet international standards, the International Press Institute (IPI) and Article 19 said today following a joint two-day mission to Lithuania.
The bill, which passed Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee last month, would repeal Art. 155 of the Criminal Code on insult as well as Art. 290 on defamation of public officials. It is likely that one or both offences will be included in a new version of the Code of Administrative Offences currently being prepared by Parliament, sources told IPI.
However, the measure, an amended version of one introduced two years ago, does not currently foresee any changes to Art. 154 on defamation. That article allows for up to two years in prison in certain cases and is not restricted to allegations of fact.
In meetings with IPI and Article 19, Vice Minister of Justice Paulius Griciūnas as well as several key parliamentarians, including Legal Affairs Committee Chair Julius Sabatauskas, noted that Art. 25 of the Lithuanian Constitution mandates that “slander and disinformation” be subject to criminal punishment. This interpretation was said to be confirmed in 2005 by the Lithuanian Constitutional Court.
Nevertheless, IPI and Article 19 called on Lithuania to fully repeal Art. 154, noting that a number of international human rights bodies have found criminal defamation to be a disproportionate restriction on freedom of expression. Both organisations emphasised that criminal defamation laws are capable of exerting a chilling effect on the press and other speakers regardless of whether they are actively applied, and are prone to abuse as long as they remain on the books.
Moreover, as highlighted in IPI’s recent report “Out of Balance”, there is a clear global and European trend toward ending criminal defamation. In just the past six years, Ireland, Romania and the UK have fully repealed criminal defamation laws. Estonia, a fellow former Soviet Baltic state, did so previously and neighbouring Latvia has gone further in reforming its criminal provisions than the current Lithuanian bill proposes.
“Although this bill as currently worded does contain several important changes, it does not go far enough in terms of satisfying Lithuania’s obligations under international human rights standards and treaties,” IPI Director of Press Freedom Programmes Scott Griffen, who led the mission, said. “Lithuania currently lags behind its fellow Baltic states in terms of defamation reform and this bill would not change that situation. We urge Lithuanian MPs not to let this opportunity to remove a significant barrier to free expression slip by.”
“Lithuanian MPs should seriously consider the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights stating clearly that imprisonment is not an acceptable penalty in defamation cases,” stated Katie Morris, head of the Europe and Central Asia Programme at Article 19.
Sabatauskas said that Parliament would take IPI’s and Article 19’s opinion into consideration, although he did not commit to changes in the current bill. Culture Committee Chair Audronė Pitrėnienė, Legal Affairs Committee Deputy Chair Stasys Šedbaras and members of the Human Rights Committee including Dalia Kuodytė were also present to hear IPI and Article 19’s concerns.
The special representatives on free expression of the U.N., the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Organization of American States (OAS) have called on states to abolish criminal defamation laws, which they identified as one of the “ten key threats to freedom of expression” around the world. Likewise, the U.N. Human Rights Committee, which is responsible for interpreting the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Lithuania is a party, has urged states to consider repealing criminal defamation laws. The European Court of Human Rights has criticised the use of criminal defamation laws and has stated clearly that imprisonment is never an acceptable punishment in defamation cases.
In addition to Griffen, IPI was represented in Lithuania by George Brock, former IPI executive board member and professor of journalism at City University London; Christian Zarm, IPI German National Committee vice president and president of the German Press Association; and Leif Lønsmann, an IPI member from Denmark and long-time journalist and adviser with the Danish public broadcaster. ARTICLE 19 was represented by Katie Morris, head of Europe and Central Asia.
Together with various partners at both the international and national levels, IPI is leading a pan-European effort to raise awareness about the dangers criminal defamation laws pose to free expression and to encourage governments to update legislation in line with international standards.
Mission participants also had the opportunity to discuss the issue of criminal defamation laws as well as additional freedom of expression issues in Lithuania – such as restrictions on LGBT-related speech and the regulation of online comment sections – with key civil society and media actors. Meetings were held with, among others, the Lithuanian Journalists Union (Lietuvos žurnalistų sąjunga), the Lithuanian Journalists and Publishers Ethics Commission, the Human Rights Monitoring Institute, the news site Delfi.lt and the Lithuanian Gay League.
This article was updated on May 12, 2015 to add the last paragraph.