Saturday

18th Jan 2020

Opinion

Irish defamation law and EU human rights

  • "Bad legislation has a tendency to spread" (Photo: Wikipedia)

On July 23, a new defamation law went into effect on Ireland.

The new legislation has made blasphemous speech illegal, which means that a citizen of the European Union can be punished for making a comment that is determined to be offensive to a substantial number of followers of a religion.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 30-day free trial.

... or join as a group

The punishment of a fine, up to €25,000, can hardly be consistent with human-rights obligations under the EU treaties, and I have therefore filed a complaint to the European Commission.

Mandatory practicing of a religion is something that most of us associate with times long gone. But this is exactly what a blasphemy law amounts to. A statement is blasphemous only within a religious context, and the systematic avoidance of blasphemy is part of religious practice. Thus, a law against blasphemy is an obligation to live your life according to the religious beliefs of others.

Defining blasphemy as speech that offends a substational number of religious followers gives the churches the power to gradually expand the application of the law. A not too far-fetched guess is that statements threatening the power of religious leaders will awaken the strongest reactions and therefore be considered the most offensive ones, resulting in punishment by the state.

Article 6.1 in the current EU treaty establishes that the Union "is founded on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law, principles which are common to the member states."

Free speech is a human right, a fundamental freedom and a necessary condition for democracy. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights describes free speech as everyone's right to freedom of expression and adds: "This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers."

There is no obvious reason why free speech should not include the right to characterise religious views or symbols in a way that some might find offensive.

Countries with strong free-speech laws, such as Sweden, have reasons to worry about the Irish blasphemy legislation. The immediate concern is that Swedish citizens, while traveling within the European Union, can run into legal processes and be punished for merely expressing a view on a religion or religious symbol.

The less direct but more serious concern is that bad legislation has a tendency to spread. Once a restriction is in place in one European country it will quickly be legitimised, and politicians in other countries can point to it as they take away fundamental rights from their own citizens. The argument will be that if a developed Western society such as Ireland does it, it surely cannot be incompatible with democratic principles.

In worst case, the spread of blasphemy laws will be accelerated by EU initiatives.

We have already seen the European Union limit free speech to combat problems such as terrorism and racism. Mandatory blocking of websites that facilitate the sharing of banned material is now being discussed amongst ministers of justice, and it's only a matter of time until the French proposal to cut suspected file sharers off the internet is back on the EU agenda. Banning negative statements about religious symbols would certainly fit the European inclination to battle ideas with censorship.

The Irish legislation against blasphemy gives the EU Commission a chance to draw the lines against both online and offline censorship. Let us hope they grab the opportunity, because the obligations of the member states need to be clarified.

How harsh can free-speech restrictions be under a treaty demanding respect for freedom, democracy and human rights?

Karl Sigfrid is a conservative member of the Swedish Parliament

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Why EU subsidy schemes don't work - the evidence

Counter to popular beliefs among policymakers, the positive effects of support schemes are found to be very limited. In order to revitalise Europe, the newly appointed EU Commission needs to reconsider government's role in innovation and entrepreneurship.

Can the Green Deal – and Europe – succeed?

We have invested €200bn in research and innovation since 1984, but have we achieved any leadership in quantum, semiconductors, storage, artificial intelligence? The simple answer is no.

MEPs: Don't waste your chance to change Vietnam

A growing number of MEPs have become aware of the brutality and unreliability of the Vietnamese regime, and realise that this vote is one of the rare occasions in which they have binding power in EU foreign policy.

Europe's migration system is broken: Renew has a plan

The failure of successful integration of migrants and refugees granted stay in Europe puts the entire asylum and migration policy at risk. Member states have to step up their integration policies.

Turkey's tightrope could finally snap in Libya

Turkey has embarked on a neo-Ottoman strategy, aiming to re-establish itself as a regional power. This involves simultaneously reaping the benefits of Nato membership whilst pursuing an overtly-expansionist foreign policy, even including a loose partnership with Russia in Syria.

Why EU minimum wage is actually bad idea for workers

As president of one of the largest trade union confederations in the EU, I see the need for good working conditions and decent pay in all member states - but an EU-wide minimum wage could be used to lower wages.

News in Brief

  1. 'No objection in principle' on Huawei cooperation, EU says
  2. French aircraft carrier goes to Middle East amid tensions
  3. EU suggests temporary ban on facial recognition
  4. EU industry cries foul on Chinese restrictions
  5. 'Devil in detail', EU warns on US-China trade deal
  6. Trump threatened EU-tariffs over Iran, Germany confirms
  7. EU trade commissioner warns UK of 'brinkmanship'
  8. Germany strikes coal phase-out deal

Column

Why nations are egomaniacs

A nation, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, is not capable of altruism. Even less so, if such a group has formed on the basis of strong emotions and casts itself as the "saviour of the nation".

Maltese murder - the next rule-of-law crisis in EU?

While Poland's government is escalating its rule of law crisis by introducing even more drastic measures against the country's judges, another problem is looming over the EU's commitment to upholding the rule of law: Malta.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of Ministers40 years of experience have proven its point: Sustainable financing actually works
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Baltic ministers paving the way for 5G in the region
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersEarmarked paternity leave – an effective way to change norms
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Climate Action Weeks in December
  5. UNESDAUNESDA welcomes Nicholas Hodac as new Director General
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersBrussels welcomes Nordic culture

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAUNESDA appoints Nicholas Hodac as Director General
  2. UNESDASoft drinks industry co-signs Circular Plastics Alliance Declaration
  3. FEANIEngineers Europe Advisory Group: Building the engineers of the future
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  5. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us