Routine harassment
Insult laws should be wiped off the books around the world

The Wall Street Journal Europe, 15 February 2001

Today's lesson in unintended consequences begins with a headless body in the Ukraine and ends among the dusty law books of the European Union.

Heorhiy Gongadze was a crusading journalist whose reporting over the Internet and Ukraine's radio waves often criticized that nation's president, Leonid Kuchma, state security services, faceless functionaries and greedy oligarchs. He disappeared on Sept. 16.

Almost two months later, a farmer found a headless body on the outskirts of the town of Tarashcha. Journalists immediately suspected that these were the remains of Gongadze, who, because he did not have to buy paper or ink from the state, might have been much harder to silence by less violent means. Government investigators quickly announced that the body was not Gongadze's. They offered no proof. Several of Gongadze's colleagues saw the body and identified its jewelry as Gongadze's and x-rays revealed shrapnel wounds very similar to those Gongadze bore. Officials waited nearly a month before gathering DNA samples. The test results have not been released.

Gongadze's disappearance and the government's shoddy investigation have provoked mass demonstrations in Kiev. The growing crowds are demanding President Kuchma's resignation.

The protestors blame President Kuchma because of recently released tape recordings that allegedly reveal the private conversations of the Ukrainian president and his top officials about Gongadze. "The audio tapes -- which I have heard -- contain a voice identical in cadence, style and intonation to that of the Ukrainian president," Adrian Karatnycky, the president of Freedom House, wrote on these pages in December. The voice on the tape, writes Mr. Karatnycky, seems "more interested in routine harassment than dark deeds." While the tapes could be an elaborate fabrication, the protesters seem to believe the worst.

One of the voices on the tape clearly fingers Gongadze. "You give me this one at Ukrainska Pravda [Gongadze's Web site] and . . . we will start to decide what to do with him. He's simply gone too far." Perhaps the routine harassment of Gongadze simply went too far.

What concerns us here is not simply that murder is illegal in every country, but how legal codes in the West can be mirrored in the East, with often unforeseen but disastrous consequences. It would have been perfectly legal to harass Gongadze under Ukrainian law. The Ukrainian constitution copies the latter half of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which specifically allows for limiting free speech on grounds of national security, public order, and protecting the reputations of public figures. In Western Europe, these measures are rarely used and, when they are, are usually overturned by courts. But the East is a different story. Free-speech loopholes are "open to wide interpretation and abuse in Ukraine," according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based watchdog group.

Ukraine has also adopted an "insult law" modeled on those in France and other European nations. Insult laws are different from libel laws, which punish malicious untruths. The legal test used by insult laws is whether a politician's dignity has been tweaked. And "You can offend someone's dignity with truth," notes Ruth Walden, a University of North Carolina journalism professor who recently concluded a six-year study of insult laws in more than 100 countries. Her study reveals that France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Austria and other democracies still have these laws on the books. Sometimes they are used; Austria recently prosecuted a journalist who referred to Joerg Haider as an "idiot."

While these outmoded laws are gathering dust, they are also setting a perfidious example for new democracies. Ukraine's top prosecutor recently filed suit against a radio station for "insulting" the president of Belarus, Europe's remaining Stalinist regime. Kazakhstan's chief prosecutor defended the imprisonment of a Kazakh journalist, who offended that nation's president, at a 1992 U.N. conference on press freedom thus: "You have similar laws in France and Germany, so why not here?"

This is why the World Press Freedom Committee and other free-speech organizations have launched a campaign to wipe insult laws off the books around the world. Clearing away the colonial-era insult laws is one form of EU harmonization that we could wholeheartedly endorse.

The Wall Street Journal Europe, 15 February 2001