The Vienna-based South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), an affiliate of the International Press Institute (IPI), welcomes the 19 July 2011 announcement by Serbia´s State Secretary in the Ministry of Justice, Slobodan Homen, that defamation and libel will be removed from the country´s criminal code in autumn 2011. Once parliament approves these changes, defamation and libel will be subject to civil litigation only.
SEEMO believes that defamation and libel should be decriminalised. The criminal code has frequently been used in defamation cases in Serbia and consequently many media outlets prefer self-censorship to pursuing sensitive issues. In some cases the criminal code has been used to sanction journalists and media even when they reported on official declarations by politicians and party leaders.
SEEMO believes that in defamation cases civil rather than criminal laws should be applied. However, abuses can occur even if only the civil code is used. If journalists are subject to investigation and violate civil code provisions, sanctions should be commensurate with their income. Excessively high fines, which have been levied in several countries monitored by SEEMO, have a repressive effect: media outlets face closure and journalists abstain from writing about sensitive issues. Disproportionate fines hamper the freedom and independence of journalists.
SEEMO joins the Serbian Journalists´ Association in their demand that Article 336 of the Criminal Code also be amended: according to this Article, it is forbidden to comment on court cases until the final sentence has been passed and implemented.
“I do hope that Serbia will decriminalise defamation and libel,” said Oliver Vujovic, SEEMO Secretary General. “If this proposal is approved in autumn 2011, Serbia will set an example to many EU countries in which defamation is still considered a criminal offence.”