The European Parliament (EP) in Strasbourg passed two resolutions Thursday, each detailing a set of recommendations to protect the rights of journalists to speak and print freely. 21
"The EU, as a community of values, should aspire to lead in ensuring the free word, whether blogged or spoken, and information, whether researched or photographed, are protected. Journalists and a free, pluralist media, are essential for democracies and checks on power. Freedom of speech and freedom after speech are at the core of open and free societies," said Marietje Schaake (ALDE, NL), rapporteur for press and media freedom in the world. The EP is the directly elected parliament of the European Union.
The first resolution (2011/2081(INI)), focusing on press freedom, "(r)ecognizes that governments have the primary responsibility for guaranteeing and protecting freedom of the press and media." The resolution also "points out that governments also have the primary responsibility for hampering freedom of the press and media and, in the worst cases, are increasingly resorting to legal pressures in order to restrict that freedom, e.g. through the abuse of anti-terrorism or anti-extremism legislation and laws on national security, treason or subversion." The EP endorses a "balance" between the concerns of national security and press freedom. The resolution goes further to deplore the fact that "journalists are frequently wounded or murdered or are being subjected to serious abuses throughout the world, often with impunity," and stresses the "importance of combating impunity."
The second resolution (2013/2082(INI)), centering on religious freedom, endorses the firm opposition of "any attempt to criminalise freedom of speech in relation to religious issues, such as blasphemy laws." The EP predictably condemns "all forms of violence and discrimination," but goes further to emphasize that "particular attention should be paid to the situation of those who change their religion or belief, as in practice they are subject in a number of countries to social pressure, intimidation or outright violence."
Both moves by the EP stand in contrast to the more restrictive policies endorsed by the United Nations (UN) and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The OIC has endorsed "blasphemy laws" -- the same type of law denounced by the EP in today's resolution. Although now blasphemy laws are often euphemistically referred to as laws protecting the "defamation of religion," the concept remains the same -- laws that punish non-incitement speech about religion. The UN has worked with the OIC to help codify this type of speech restriction as international law.
In recent years a number of religious and nationalistic extremists, seeking to insulate themselves from criticism, have sued journalists who report on their malfeasances for defamation. This tactic is often called "lawfare." In 2012, with the help of the Legal Project, Hassan Daioleslam defended a defamation lawsuit from plaintiffs Trita Parsi and the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). The plaintiffs were not able to demonstrate defamation, and their case was dismissed on summary judgment. Further, the Court ordered NIAC and Parsi to pay the defense sanctions. Earlier this year the Spanish government charged Imran Firasat with "hate crimes" for a YouTube video he produced called "The Innocent Prophet." Firasat has since been acquitted, but still faces possible deportation to Pakistan. Controversial journalists, bloggers, and other activists who seek to publish non-defamatory expositional material would likely favor the liberal standards of speech endorsed by the EP over the more restrictive policies of the UN and the OIC.
Some have already opined that the European Parliament, although ideologically praiseworthy, lacks the will to implement these resolutions as law, which now only exist as recommendations. Whether or not resolutions 2081 and 2082 are eventually codified in any way, the EP's actions remain significant in the face of UN and OIC pressure to promote a more restrictive international speech code.
Nathaniel Sugarman is a Law Clerk at The Legal Project, an activity of the Middle East Forum. This article was commissioned by The Legal Project.