I remember that France, and other European countries like Germany that experience hate-speech laws on their books, are being mindful of the racist rhetoric that ended in the upward push of the Nazis and the Holocaust. But I also believe they’re being misguided by pursuing cases like Galliano’s within the criminal in place of civil arena. While you criminalize speech – unless in rare cases when it deliberately incites violence against persons or governments – you intimidate its free exercise, and the nation that gave us Voltaire and Montesquieu should know better. As Carlos Lauria of the brand new York-based non-profit Committee to give protection to Journalists told me last year, “There is a growing international consensus that laws that criminalize speech aren’t compatible with human rights.”
Lauria has a different stake on this matter because he’s the CPJ’s coordinator for the Americas. In Ecuador, for example, new anti-defamation laws pushed through by President Rafael Correa to curb what he calls “corrupt and irresponsible” news outlets – which, not coincidentally, oppose a lot of his policies – led this past summer to the conviction of journalist Emilio Palacio, sentenced to 3 years in prison this year for calling Correa a “dictator” in an article. The 3 co-directors of his newspaper, El Universo, were also convicted and sentenced to 3 years each. (All four men also face extraordinary $40 million fines; Palacio has since fled to Miami.) Correa has also gone after two investigative journalists who committed “disrespect” against the President by reporting on huge government contracts won by his brother, Fabricio Correa.
In Venezuela, vague “media responsibility” and anti-defamation laws promulgated under socialist President Hugo Chávez have taken aim at anyone who’s arbitrarily deemed to have insulted the President or public officials, or to have spread “false information” that “causes public panic.” One of the vital laws’ most frequent targets is the opposition television network Globovisión, whose admittedly shoddy, hyper-partisan journalism remains to be no excuse for criminal prosecution. Nevertheless, Chávez’s government most recently went after Globovisión in July for the amorphous crime of “generating panic, uncertainty and disquiet” in its critical coverage of the government’s handling of a jail riot. Similar media intimidation is at the rise in countries like Nicaragua, Honduras and Panama.
(See “Venezuela’s Bicentennial: Should Chávez Re-Examine Bolívar – and His Revolution?”)
The problem in regards to the Galliano case is that it is all too easy for developing countries like Venezuela to cover behind the instance of developed countries like France, precisely for the reason that latter are developed. Supporters of the French hate-speech laws will argue that there is a difference between prosecuting someone for racist invective and prosecuting someone for insulting a head of state – but to diehard supporters of Chávez, the latter will also be just as abhorrent and deserving of time behind bars. So if La France, an avatar of liberté, egalité and fraternité, can criminalize speech in defense of what it considers the national good, then so can the Bolivarian Revolution, señor.
But as U.S. legal scholar Jonathon Turley of the George Washington University School of Law in Washington, D.C., noted in his blog post at the Galliano conviction, it’s equally troubling to look developed countries like France behave like developing nations relating to curtailing free speech. Wrote Turley: “I find the failure of the French to denounce [prosecutions like Galliano’s] to be distressing for the reason that country’s long and proud history in recognizing basic civil liberties.”
The judge within the Galliano cased suspended his $8,000 fine, but that isn’t the purpose. The criminal conviction itself is, most of all because Galliano can have faced prison time – that is not, as experts like Lauria and Turley argue, suitable punishment for slander or libel within the 21st cen…