Article XIX, the Global Campaign for Freedom of Expression, is an international human rights organisation which defends and promotes freedom of expression and access to information worldwide. Defamation is one of the Global Issues on which they focus. Indeed, their 2000 Defining Defamation report (pdf) seeks to set out an appropriate balance between the human right to freedom of expression and the need to protect individual reputations. Principle 4 of this document, concerning criminal defamation, provides
(a) All criminal defamation laws should be abolished and replaced, where necessary, with appropriate civil defamation laws. Steps should be taken, in those States which still have criminal defamation laws in place, to progressively implement this Principle.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, they have this week published an overview of worldwide defamation trends, which they have enlivened with interactive maps of applicable legislation and punishments. They simply record that, for both Ireland and the UK, there are civil and criminal sanctions for defamation. But, in a parallel development, they have lobbied (letter | press release (both pdfs)) the UK government to accept an amendment of the Coroners and Justice Bill 2008 put down by Dr Evan Harris, MP which would abolish criminal libel in the UK. [Update: see also Index on Censorship here and here] Harris told the Times:
Seditious libel and criminal defamation laws are a stain on our legal system and a terrible example to set in a world where free expression is so often restricted and oppressed. Parliament should sieze this chance to get rid of them.
In the same article, Geoffrey Robertson QC said
These laws have an inglorious history. They were deployed by the King’s lick-spittle judges in the Star Chamber to torture puritans, and later used against John Wilkes and Tom Paine’s publishers. Their continuing existence serves only to provide an excuse for modern despots when they jail their critics – they always claim that they are merely using laws that are also on the UK statute book. It is time to expunge them.
A wonderful discussion of these cases is provided by Lord Walker’s Bentham Club Presidential Address on Security, Freedom of Speech and Criminal Justice in the age of Pitt, Burke and Fox (pdf).
Consequently, the amendment proposed by Harris simply provided:
The offences of sedition and seditious libel under the common law of England and Wales are abolished.
However, the House of Commons website records that the amendment was not taken during the debate. This is a pity, and I hope that it can be taken when the Bill is debated again. I have already blogged extensively about a similar Irish effort (here, here, here, here, here and here) in Part 5 of the still-delayed Defamation Bill, 2006. Whatever happened to that? Indeed, as the title question asks: why are legislators so loath to repeal criminal libel provisions?