Problems with Estonian laws on freedom of expression

Tallinn, April 16, 2000

The Estonian Newspaper Association expresses concern over the proposed new penal code in Estonia that would establish a two-tier set of punitive measures on libel, offering special protection for high officials. This would endanger freedom of expression.

The draft of the new penal code (Draft Law No 119) states that the sanctions for libelling high state officials are stricter than for libelling an ordinary individual.

Article 132 states that for libelling a person the punishment is a fine or an arrest. If carried by the media, the same act would be punished by a fine, arrest or imprisonment of up to one year.

Article 254 says that for libelling the speaker of parliament, president, prime minister, national court chairman, legal chancellor, state auditor, army chief of staff or the commander-in-chief, the punishment is a fine, arrest or a one-year imprisonment. When carried out in the media, the same act would be punished by a fine or imprisonment of up to three years.

This way, high officials are offered more protection than ordinary people. Article 254 is listed in the chapter on crimes against the state. The explanatory memorandum going with the draft law says punishments for libelling high officials should be stricter because an act of libel against them would also mean an attack against the state

The Estonian Newspaper Association has conveyed its protest to the parliament’s legal affairs committee, which has promised to invite us for consultations. Draft law No 119 has passed its first reading in parliament. The date for the second reading has not been set.

Another aspect of Estonia’s legislation causing concern from the point of view of freedom of expression relates to the existing Criminal Code. Article 132-1 provides for punishment for disseminating false or discreditable information about candidates for political office ( for president, parliament or local municipal council). The article provides for a fine or arrest for this act.

This clause is also against freedom of expression and should be deleted from the law.

Overall, the issues of libel and defamation should be removed from the criminal code, and be applied only under the civil code. The Estonian press has been experiencing a chilling effect on the issue since journalist Enno Tammer was declared guilty in 1996 under the cirminal code for degrading the honour and dignity of a politician’s wife. Tammer has since taken the case to the Strasbourg court.

The Estonian Newspaper Association has information about cases in which reporters have withdrawn their statements or retracted a story after having been warned of the “Tammer scenario”.


Estonian Newspaper Association

Pärnu mnt 67A
10134 Tallinn Estonia
Tel. +372 646 1005
Fax. +372 631 1210

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