16 March 2000


Proposed amendments to Criminal Code do not include all the provisions which deal with freedom of expression

(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - The following is a 15 March 2000 ARTICLE 19 letter to Estonian President Lennart Meri commenting on proposed changes to the country's Criminal Code:

15 March, 2000

Mr Lennart Meri


Weinzenbergi 39

10127 Tallinn


Fax: +372 631 62 50

Dear Pres. Lennart Meri

ARTICLE 19, the Global Campaign for Free Expression, is writing with reference to the proposed changes to the Criminal Code that are currently being considered by your government. We urge you to ensure that the amended provisions include all those dealing with freedom of expression, including media freedom, in order to bring the law into line with Estonia's commitments under international law and to provide the highest level of protection for this right.

According to our information, the Estonian Criminal Code, originally developed during the Soviet era, is currently being modified in a number of areas, such as intellectual property rights and money laundering. We are informed that the proposed amendments do not include all the provisions which deal with freedom of expression, some of which infringe international standards. We refer in particular to Article 132-1 of the Criminal Code which condemns the act of disseminating knowingly false information or otherwise discreditable fictitious information or degrading in any way the honour or dignity of the Presidential Candidate or candidate for a seat in Parliament or a local municipal council.

The above article contravenes international standards on freedom of expression, as established by Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), as well as Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which Estonia has ratified. The provision provides special protection for public figures against the publication of defamatory statements and, therefore, runs counter to the standards set by European court jurisprudence. This has established that "the limits of acceptable criticism are ... wider as regards a politician as such than as regards a private individual. Unlike the latter, the former inevitably and knowingly lays himself open to close scrutiny of his every work and deed ... and he must consequently display a greater degree of
tolerance". In addition, the UN Human Rights Committee last year stated in its Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties that Romania should repeal provisions in its Penal Code which provide extra protection against defamation for public officials.

Furthermore, the use of broad and vague language such as restricting the publication of "otherwise discreditable fictitious information" about a public official is open to wide interpretation and is, therefore, liable to create a chilling effect on the media. Journalists are under a duty to satisfy the public's right to know and cannot always delay publication until they have complete proof of truth of their alleged facts. Even the best journalists will make mistakes and to leave them open to punishment for every false allegation would be to undermine the public interest in receiving timely information. The requirement that an accused must prove the truth of a defamatory statement infringes his/her right to disseminate information, opinions and ideas, as stated in Article 10, as well as limiting the public's right to receive them.

Whilst amending the Penal Code, ARTICLE 19 would also urge you to decriminalise the offence of defamation, reducing it to a civil offence. This is in line with the growing trend towards greater use of civil suits across Western Europe and the discussion in a number of countries about decriminalisation of defamation. An abuse of the right to freedom of expression can only very rarely have serious enough consequences to warrant it being a criminal offence - for example, when it leads directly to a breach of the peace. Defamation is not such a case and can be adequately remedied via the civil law.

In light of the above considerations, we urge your government to amend promptly Article 132-1 to bring it into line with international, and in particular European, standards of freedom of expression and with Estonia's international commitments. As a fast-track applicant for EU membership, Estonia should be setting the highest possible example in the amendment of its legislation.

We await confirmation from your government that the necessary steps will be taken towards the implementation of the above measures. If we can provide you with any further information on best law and practice with regard to these or other freedom of expression related provisions, please do not hesitate to let us know.

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Puddephatt

Executive Director

Recommended Action

Similar appeals can be sent to:

Lennart Meri
Weinzenbergi 39
10127 Tallinn
Fax: +372 631 62 50
E-mail: sekretar@vpk.ee

Please copy appeals to the source if possible.


ARTICLE 19: Global Campaign for Free Expression
6-8 Amwell Street
United Kingdom
info (@) article19.org
Fax:+44 20 7278 7660
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