Serbia: Criminal Code draft amendments could threaten freedom of expression

Serbia: Criminal Code draft amendments could threaten freedom of expression - Media

ARTICLE 19 provides comments in regard to the proposed amendments to the Serbian Criminal Code that were originally initiated to address harassment against journalists in Serbia. While ARTICLE 19 appreciates efforts intended to strengthen the safety of journalists, we are concerned that certain suggested changes may have a negative impact on freedom of expression and ultimately journalists’ work. 

The amendments to the Criminal Code were proposed by the Ministry of Justice in Serbia and were followed by two rounds of consultations. ARTICLE 19 acknowledges that online abuse against journalists has become a serious challenge in Serbia. We understand the motivation behind the proposal, which is to tackle online threats and to address the prosecutorial obstacles to initiate investigations ex officio. However, ARTICLE 19 notes that, while well intentioned, the proposal fails to contemplate the implications of the amendments on the exercise of the right to freedom of expression. 

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ARTICLE 19 welcomes the general comments of the amendments, which explicitly recognise that any restrictions on freedom of expression should be formulated with sufficient clarity, pursue legitimate aims and be necessary, and that criminal sanctions should be used exceptionally and as a last resort.

However, we argue that the proposal to amend the Criminal Code fails to meet international freedom of expression standards. It does not distinguish criticism and offensive expressions that do not warrant criminal liability from attacks and threats that journalists face as a result of their journalistic activities. The latter in fact requires prosecutorial action to protect journalists at risk. Our concern is that there are other more appropriate and effective measures to improve the safety of journalists than the proposed legislation. 

In its comments, ARTICLE 19 raises and discusses following key issues:

  1. A number of terms in the proposal are extremely vague, in violation of the requirement of legality for restrictions on the right to freedom of expression.
  2. The amendment penalises expression of opinions that are afforded absolute protection under international freedom of expression standards.
  3. The amendment provides criminal sanction for ‘insult’ and similar concepts that are not permissible under international freedom of expression standards.

ARTICLE 19 strongly suggests the Working Group reconsiders the proposed amendments. Instead, it should review other preventive, protective and investigatory measures that focus on the prosecutorial barriers to investigate threats, harassment and other forms of serious attacks against journalists. We believe that existing non-expressive-based offences can be reviewed to identify the structural issues impeding ex officio investigation and requiring procedural and investigatory action carried out by journalists and the media to seek accountability.

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