Defamation laws should only be used to protect individuals, never to prevent criticism of the government or institutions.
- The fact is that many countries have legal limitations on free speech, which, if restrictively interpreted, may just be acceptable – but may generate abuses in countries with no liberal, democratic tradition. In theory, they are intended to prevent “abuses” of free speech by ensuring, for example, that candidates and public authorities are not vilified, and even protecting the constitutional system. In practice, however, they may lead to the censoring of any statements which are critical of government or call for constitutional change, although this is the very essence of democratic debate. For example, European standards are violated by an electoral law which prohibits insulting or defamatory references to officials or other candidates in campaign documents, makes it an offence to circulate libellous information on candidates, and makes candidates themselves liable for certain offences committed by their supporters. The insistence that materials intended for use in election campaigns must be submitted to electoral commissions, indicating the organisation which ordered and produced them, the number of copies and the date of publication, constitutes an unacceptable form of censorship, particularly if electoral commissions are required to take action against illegal or inaccurate publications. This is even more true if the rules prohibiting improper use of the media during electoral campaigns are rather vague.
- Following on from this, the Special Rapporteur believes strongly that it is critical to raise the public conscience to ensure that criminal laws are not used (or abused) to stifle public awareness and suppress discussion of matters of general or specific interest. At minimum, it must be understood that:(a) The only legitimate purpose of defamation, libel, slander and insult laws is to protect reputations; this implies defamation will apply only to individuals - not flags, States, groups, etc.; these laws should never be used to prevent criticism of government or even for such reasons as maintaining public order for which specific incitement laws exist.