Warning of blasphemy law's 'chilling effect' on free speech

 

THE ORGANISATION for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has warned the Government that its plan to introduce a new blasphemy law risks flouting international standards on freedom of speech.

Miklos Haraszti, media freedom representative for the 56-nation OSCE, the world’s largest regional security organisation, said new court cases that might emerge as a result of criminalising blasphemy would have a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression.

Last month Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern announced that he would propose a new crime of blasphemous libel in an amendment to the Defamation Bill.

The new section of the Bill will state: “A person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €100,000.”

Mr Haraszti welcomed the Government’s plan to decriminalise defamation, but said the proposed new offence risked “jeopardising OSCE media freedom commitments”.

By passing such a provision, Ireland would “defy the international trend that has led to the abolition of that crime in a number of countries”, he said. “It also could hamper progress towards greater freedom of speech in other OSCE participating states.”

In a statement posted on the Vienna-based OSCE’s website, Mr Haraszti described Ireland as being “in the vanguard of 21st-century media freedoms as it prepares to officially make defamation a mere civil offence”. It would therefore, he continued, be “unfortunate” to introduce at the same time a new crime of blasphemous libel.

Mr Haraszti has written to Mr Ahern and to the Oireachtas committee debating the Bill, calling for it to be passed without the blasphemy provision.

“I am aware that the new article is meant to bring the law into line with a constitutional provision dating from 1937,” said Mr Haraszti.

“Nonetheless, it violates OSCE media freedom commitments and other international standards upholding the right to freely discuss issues of religion.”

He added: “It is clear that the Government’s gesture of passing a new version of the ‘blasphemy article’, even if milder than the dormant old version, might incite new court cases and thereby exercise a chilling effect on freedom of expression.”

Mr Ahern insists he is obliged to take account of the offence of blasphemy, which is provided for in the Constitution.

Article 40.6.1 of the Constitution states that the “publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law”.

A spokesman for the Minister said he had two options, either to amend the Constitution, or amend the law.

The spokesman said Mr Ahern was “bemused” by criticism of his proposed amendment.

“He has to do it because he is the Minister for Justice and he cannot wilfully ignore the Constitution. Unlike the commentariat, the Minister does not have the option of wilfully ignoring the Constitution,” the spokesman said.

“He is the Minister for Justice and he is advised by the Attorney General that he has to have regard to the offence of blasphemy.”

Mr Ahern, he added, felt that in “the current economic environment” it was not appropriate to go to the people seeking to amend an article of the Constitution.

The debate on the Defamation Bill 2006 continues at Committee stage today when the Oireachtas Committee on Justice will discuss the proposed amendments.