BLOG: Former Dominican Republic leader advocates blasphemy laws
IPI urges Leonel Fernández to lead the fight against criminal defamation instead
By: Scott Griffen, Press Freedom Adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean
VIENNA, Sept. 26, 2012 - Since his third term as president of the Dominican Republic ended in August, Leonel Fernández has been busy, recently embarking on trips to Europe and North America, where he received the “Statesman of the Year” award from the Canadian Council for the Americas, which recognised him for mediation and democracy-building efforts in Latin America.
But it is his recent remarks on press freedom that have earned IPI’s attention. Speaking on Friday before the United Nations in his capacity as ex-president and current director of the Foundation for Global Democracy and Development (FUNGLODE), which he also founded, Fernández laid out his case for the international criminalisation of blasphemy.
“I think we all agree that [having] freedom of expression and the free flow of ideas does not necessarily mean that there are no limits to the exercise thereof,” Fernandez commented, in reference to the controversial film mocking the Prophet Muhammad.
He continued: “There are limits to freedom of expression in national laws that have to do with defamation, insult, and slander. Why can’t we consider legislation at an international level that establishes limits on the use of digital media, when it [the content] has to do with blasphemy or insult or affects the fundamental values of a particular community?”
Perhaps most troublingly, the former president appeared to conflate legality and morality. Fernández criticised as “contradictory” the position of UN member states that had condemned the video on moral grounds but nevertheless declined to block access to it, citing free expression. He explained: “if something is considered legal, it shouldn’t be the object of moral rebuke.”
Unfortunately, Fernández’s position mirrors the laws of his own country, where journalists can still be sentenced to a year in prison for offending “public morality” – in addition to facing jail terms and fines for defaming a wide range of public officials. His comments are all the more disappointing considering IPI’s mission to the Dominican Republic in June, when lawmakers and justice department officials expressed their desire to decriminalise defamation in the country.
While all Caribbean countries maintain criminal defamation laws on the books, the Dominican Republic is one of the very few to actively apply such laws, with two journalists sentenced to prison in 2012 alone. The country gained some company last week when authoritarian Cuba accused an independent journalist of libelling the Castro brothers. IPI has long argued that criminal defamation laws serve no other purpose that as a convenient tool for powerful individuals to protect their position and chill critical opinion.
Governments should not be legislating to protect the feelings and sensibilities of their citizens. The idea that we should criminalise speech simply because it offends certain segments of the population is dangerous and retrogressive, not least because the ability to accept scorn and tolerate criticism is the surest sign of a healthy, confident democracy.
In his address, given to commemorate the International Day of Peace, Fernández highlighted the power of the borderless Internet to incite violence, yet free speech and public order needn’t be mutually exclusive.
Given his stature as a former statesman, Leonel Fernández should take the lead in calling for the elimination of the Dominican Republic’s criminal defamation and blasphemy laws by arguing that increased freedom of expression leads to a more open, honest, and self-reflective society. Doing so would send a strong message to other nations in the Caribbean, Latin America, and elsewhere considering the repeal of criminal libel.
IPI will release a final report on its visit to the Dominican Republic this week. More information on IPI’s campaign to abolish criminal defamation in the Caribbean can be found on the campaign’s official web page.