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Serbia's draft criminal code does not decriminalise defamation

(ANEM/IFEX) - Belgrade, November 5, 2012 – The Association of Independent Electronic Media (ANEM) has expressed dissatisfaction over the draft Law on Amendments to the Criminal Code, prepared by the working group of the Ministry of Justice and Public Administration.

ANEM is above all disappointed that the working group has abandoned efforts to seek the decriminalization of libel and slander. ANEM has repeatedly pointed out that decriminalization is the first necessary step towards strengthening freedom of expression in society. The possibility of criminal prosecution for libel and slander discourages free expression and lies at the root of self-censorship in the Serbian media. ANEM notes in particular that half measures such as revoking prison sentences for libel and slander in the 2005 amendments to the Criminal Code have proven inadequate. The case of Laszlo Sas has confirmed Serbian journalists' fears that prison remains a very real threat for critical reporters. The right of a journalist to criticize events in society without ending up in prison must not be subject to the arbitrary will of another individual, even if that individual is the president himself.

More troubling, the Ministry of Justice and Public Administration working group has also proposed the deletion of Article 138, paragraph 3 of the Criminal Code, which provides for strict punishment for anyone who threatens a journalist, in cases where the threats are related to the journalist's work. ANEM notes that in practice, even when convicted, violent offenders who threaten journalists usually receive sentences at or below the minimum provided for by law. The working group's proposed amendments would further reduce the minimum penalty for threatening a journalist.

ANEM has written to the Serbian government, through both the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Culture, seeking thorough changes to the regulatory framework governing the work of the media in Serbia that would provide for greater safety and protection of journalists and affirm the right of the public to be informed. The justice ministry's decision, through its working group, to abandon the decriminalization of libel and slander and reduce the minimum penalties for threats to journalists, sends a clear message that the new authorities in Serbia are not interested in improving the safety and protection of media professionals.

(Please note that this statement has been abriged for IFEX publication)

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