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Defending the right to offend, shock or disturb

Insult laws are designed to protect politicians, government leaders and officials and state institutions, arming the state with access to resources and legal doctrines that no other citizen has, says a new report by the World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC).

The report, "The Right to Offend, Shock or Disturb: A Guide to Evolution of Insult Laws in 2007 and 2008", points out that these laws are undemocratic and "complete repeal is the only sensible remedy."

The motives behind the existence of these laws are easy to discern: "It takes no imagination to conclude that the real purpose behind insult laws - why they were enacted, why they stay on the statute books, and why they are deployed so often and so vigorously by political elites - is to intimidate," says Richard N. Winfield, chairman of WPFC.

In the introduction, Caroline Fourest, a French journalist and author specialising in covering religious fundamentalism, secularism, right-wing political movements and feminism, emphasises that keeping religion and politics separate is critically tied to freedom of expression. She describes the current campaign by Islamic countries to institute an internationally recognised crime of "defamation of religions" as a global threat that would undermine the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It would also break down the separation of Church and State, which guarantees religious diversity in democracies. One example Fourest offers is the case of a 23-year-old Egyptian law student, Karim Amer, who is serving a four-year sentence for insulting Islam and the President. His crime was to produce a blog critical both of the fundamentalists and authorities.

Meanwhile, France has brought back the use of insult laws to protect President Nicolas Sarkozy, and in Niger, a newspaper editor was arrested in 2008 after a former leader of the ruling party said he was defamed and insulted by an article. In Saudi Arabia, where the media environment is among the most repressive in the world, a critic was charged for insulting Islam in 2008 after detailing abuses by the religious police on his website.

The survey of 58 representative countries throughout the world shows critical setbacks in WPFC's campaign to eliminate insult laws, as well as advances including the abrogation of the laws in Latin America, such as in Argentina, Chile, Mexico and Uruguay.

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