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First the good news. After years of lobbying from free speech advocates, the British government has repealed criminal defamation and seditious libel – thanks largely to Evan Harris MP and Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC, both Liberal Democrats. Although these laws were virtually defunct, the fact that they were still on the books was tacit approval of their use around the world to intimidate journalists. It’s now time for the rest of Europe to follow the UK’s example and repeal these draconian laws. Prosecutions for defamation and sedition remain the most significant curb on press freedom worldwide. Journalists are routinely jailed for defaming heads of state and the threat of a prison sentence exerts a significant chill on investigative reporting. They have no place in any democracy.
Index on Censorship and English PEN have also been campaigning this year for the reform of civil libel laws in the UK, following an inquiry into their impact on free speech. Since our issue on libel earlier this year (‘The Big Chill’, 2/2009), there has been an unprecedented groundswell for reform. The UK’s libel laws have always tipped the balance in favour of reputation and against free speech. With the global revolution in communication online, English courts have become an international libel tribunal and our laws now directly threaten the free speech of other countries. It’s been gratifying to see powerful support for the campaign across the political spectrum, with bloggers, academics, scientists and journalists uniting in common cause. Jack Straw, the justice minister, has since announced his commitment to libel reform and will be considering Index and PEN’s recommendations. You can follow the campaign on www.libelreform.org
We were delighted to learn of Maziar Bahari’s release in October – in time for the birth of his first child. The filmmaker and journalist had been detained without charge for nearly four months in Evin prison, mostly in solitary confinement. His colleague Malu Halasa’s article [pp14–21] gives a
Protest against government plans to control print and online publication, al Mutanabi Street, Baghdad, Iraq, 14 August 2009 Credit: Mohammed Ameen/Reuters