Tuesday, July 12, 2005

UK religious hate law: a lesson from Poland

In the aftermath of the London bombings and the subsequent attacks on mosques, the New Labour government will be speeding through the UK parliament new anti-terror and anti-religious ‘hate’ laws. Both will restrict free speech, and do nothing to make Britons feel safer.

On January 25, Jerzy Urban, the editor of the savagely satirical Polish weekly NIE (No), was convicted and fined 5.000 euros for insulting John Paul II.

Urban broke an obscure law in the Polish penal code (article 136.3), whereby it is a criminal offence to insult a foreign head of state (the Pope is the head of Vatican City, a small but nevertheless independent state).

The offending article was published in 2002, just before what turned out to be the Pope’s final visit to his homeland. Under the headline, ‘The Walking Sadomasochist’, Urban called John Paul II ‘the Brezhnev of the Vatican’ and an ‘impotent old man’. The controversial editor advised the Pope to stay in Rome and spare the people of Poland the distress of having to watch a man clearly past his sell-by date.

Maybe not a nice thing to say, but hardly a criminal act. Urban could have faced a ten month prison sentence for merely saying what he thought.

Reporters Without Borders called the verdict, ‘a dangerous precedent for an EU member state. We know perfectly well that it is still completely taboo to criticize the Pope in Poland, but that must not prevent the authorities from conforming to laws regulating press freedom in Europe, including article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights…’

The verdict came just after two Polish journalists, editor of Wiesci Polckie Andrzej Marek, and Beata Korzenewska, a journalist working for Gazeta Pamorska, were jailed for libeling a public official.

It seems that Poles fought for decades for freedom of speech, only to see that freedom become contingent on not upsetting anybody.

2 comments:

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