13 July 2011

Government decriminalises speech offences

Last week Montenegro became the latest country in the world to decriminalise libel, reports the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), an affiliate of the International Press Institute (IPI).

As part of a wider reform of its criminal code, Montenegro fully decriminalised its libel and insult laws on 9 July, leaving them entirely a matter for civil litigation.

"Journalists in Montenegro have been frequently sued for defamation and consequently many media outlets prefer self-censorship to pursuing sensitive issues," said SEEMO. "With these amendments, the media environment in Montenegro has improved, and it is now up to the journalists to make sure that self-regulation is implemented, quality journalism pursued, and international standards met."

But SEEMO warns that abuses can still happen. For instance, in other countries in the region, excessively high fines for defamation using civil laws have led to the closure of media outlets and caused journalists to refrain from writing about sensitive issues. Sanctions should be commensurate with a media outlet or individual's income, says SEEMO, and the courts should be trained in media-related matters.

"The decriminalisation of defamation does not mean that journalists should relax. On the contrary, they should be motivated to observe international standards, check their sources of information, abstain from publishing unproven facts and pursue quality journalism," said Oliver Vujovic, SEEMO secretary general.

"On the other side, the courts should intervene when standards are breached, but they should not use disproportionate fines to stifle media freedom," he added.

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