Denmark: Scrap law on ‘improper treatment’ of religious writings

Denmark: Scrap law on ‘improper treatment’ of religious writings - Civic Space

ARTICLE 19 remains concerned that, despite some minor alterations in Denmark’s draft blasphemy law, the proposal continues to pose significant danger to the right to freedom of expression, including political speech and artistic performances. As we have outlined previously, the draft law does not meet the requirements of international human rights law, which does not grant protection to abstract notions such as religions or religious feelings. We reiterate our call on the Danish Government to immediately withdraw the legislative proposal and refrain from introducing similar laws in the future.

In response to the series of Quran burning incidents by far-right individuals over the summer, the Danish Government proposed to amend the Penal Code and criminalise treating ‘publicly or with the intention of dissemination in a wider circle […] an object with significant religious value for a religious community or an object that appears as such in an improper manner’.

Since the original proposal, the Government has made some alterations to the draft law. The most significant change in the updated version of the proposal amounts to narrowing the material scope of the prohibition of ‘improper treatment’ from ‘objects with significant religious value’ to ‘writings with significant religions value’ and other objects that ‘appear’ as such writings.

ARTICLE 19 notes that although the altered draft seems to exclude such objects as crosses or mezuzahs, which would have been covered under the previous version of the law, the gist of the matter remains the same. An artistic performance, political demonstration, or recording widely disseminated on social media that depicts burning, kicking, stomping, soiling, tearing, flogging, or other type of ‘desecration’ of religious scriptures, such as the Torah, the Quran, or the Bible, will remain punishable by a fine or imprisonment for up to 2 years.

Separately, for artistic works, another change narrowed the applicability of criminal sanctions to performances where improper treatment of a religious text is the sole or central element. The amended proposal explains that an episode of tearing apart the Bible during a scene in a film or at a concert or other similar event will escape criminalisation. However, the wording seems to suggest that an artistic performance whereby ‘the improper treatment’ of the religious scripture is the focal element would be subject to penal sanctions. Therefore, a recent art performance in front of the Iranian embassy in Denmark that consisted in shredding the Quran to point out the hypocrisy of the Iranian’s theocratic regime, which uses the holy scripture to justify oppressive and abusive policies, could put Iranian artist Firoozeh Bazrafkan in prison if the proposal is adopted.

Most importantly, ARTICLE 19 is concerned that the draft law would cover all forms of political speech, whether integrated into an art performance or not, such as stomping, kicking or tearing of religious writings during a political demonstration. The proposed criminalisation of these actions constitutes an egregious attack on the right to freedom of expression and, potentially, the right to freedom of assembly. We point out that this measure pursues no legitimate aim that would be recognised in the European Convention on Human Rights or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. International human rights standards do not allow restrictions to be placed on the exercise of the right to freedom of expression for the purposes of ensuring respect for religions, religious values or sanctity of religious objects. Only people have rights and reputations that benefit from protection. Abstract notions or religious scriptures do not enjoy this protection. Likewise, the right to freedom of religion does not in any way award protection from insult, mockery or ‘defamation’.

In this context, ARTICLE 19 also recalls that expressions that offend, disturb, or shock parts of the general population firmly belong in the realm of protected speech. In fact, it is exactly the element of provocation that allows an artist or a political activist to attract attention to an issue of public interest. As such, interference with these expressions is not necessary in a democratic society. The risk of criminal prosecution will certainly produce a chilling effect on the eagerness of individuals to exercise their right to freedom of expression. Activists planning a protest against a theocratic regime or artists whose work involves the use of religious scriptures will essentially have to self-censor to avoid criminal sanctions. We reiterate that, once a state starts banning provocative and offensive speech, it lays the ground for further attacks on the exercise of the freedom of expression.

As the authors of the proposal recognise themselves, Danish penal law already contains provisions that criminalise threatening actions against a group of individuals because of their faith. These provisions are more than sufficient to prohibit and, where appropriate, prosecute religious hatred that constitutes incitement to violence, discrimination, and hostility.

Instead of imposing new restrictions on the right to freedom of expression, ARTICLE 19 recommends that the Government prioritises positive policy steps to promote tolerance towards believers of different faiths. This includes education, awareness-raising activities, and speaking out against instances of religious hatred directed against individuals and not abstract religious values or physical objects. Measures criminalising defamation of religions are counterproductive to the goal of protecting minorities or fostering inter-faith dialogue. In fact, they are prone to being abused against the religious minorities that they purport to protect.

We urge the Government of Denmark to withdraw the amendment with immediate effect.