16 May 2012

President rejects bill that criminalises libel

Following a public outcry, Kosovo's President last week rejected a proposed law that would have criminalised libel and allowed journalists to be jailed if they didn't reveal their sources, report the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), an affiliate of the International Press Institute (IPI), and Human Rights Watch.

In a statement, President Atifete Jahjaga called the proposals contrary to Kosovo's Constitution, say news reports. She sent the proposed penal code back to parliament for review and changes, following widespread criticism from journalists and IFEX members.

The members welcomed the decision, and are urging parliamentarians to re-work the proposals.

"The new legal provisions violate freedom of expression standards and would make press work extremely dangerous," said SEEMO secretary general Oliver Vujovic. "These amendments have to change and defamation and libel [must be] fully decriminalised."

Violations under the proposed code were punishable by a prison sentence of at least three years.

The proposals might have discouraged journalists from investigative reporting on sensitive issues, such as corruption by high-ranking politicians, and made whistleblowers reluctant to come forward, Human Rights Watch says.

According to SEEMO, the National Assembly adopted the code on 20 April, despite protests and warnings by journalists and IFEX members that it would significantly erode the already precarious media freedom in Kosovo.

Media representatives met with Jahjaga and asked her not to sign it nor return it to parliament. Kosovo journalists boycotted government and parliament news on World Press Freedom Day on 3 May. Daily newspapers - including state-run media - published "Stop Playing" on their front pages and did not cover the institutions' activities nor broadcast them, say news reports.

According to news reports, Justice Minister Hajredin Kuqi sent a letter of support to the media calling on the President to send the law back to parliament. Kuqi promised to resign if the law had gone into effect, even though his ministry sponsored the proposal in parliament.

The code runs counter to European ideals to decriminalise defamation and protect whistleblowers, says Human Rights Watch. The European Court of Human Rights has made clear that national courts should refrain from applying jail sentences for defamation, Human Rights Watch points out.

Similar press freedom setbacks have been felt in the region. Last month in neighbouring Montenegro, journalist Petar Komnenic was given a four-month jail sentence for libel, despite libel having been decriminalised shortly after the journalist was convicted, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

In Hungary, hundreds of thousands of people have protested recent media legislation that allows a government-appointed media council to impose massive fines on journalists for "imbalanced" or "insulting" coverage. It also gives authorities the opportunity to force journalists to reveal their sources.

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