In a couple of weeks, Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk is scheduled to go on trial for the crime of insulting his country. European Union officials now debating Turkey’s application to join the group have decried the prosecution as an affront to freedom of expression. But some of those critics come from countries that have similar laws on their books. Media lawyer Kevin Goldberg speaks with OTM guest host Rick Karr about what are known as insult laws.
RICK KARR: Last February, acclaimed Turkish novelist, Orhan Pamuk, spoke with a Swiss newspaper reporter about topics that are taboo in Turkey. Pamuk said, quote, "Thirty thousand Kurds were killed here, one million Armenians as well, and almost no one talks about it, so I do." Talking about it prompted Turkish authorities to formally charge Pamuk with the crime of insulting his country. He's scheduled to go on trial in a couple of weeks. European Union officials, who are debating Turkey's application to join the group, have decried the prosecution as an affront to freedom of expression. But perhaps those critics should have looked into their own law books before they cast those first stones. Washington, DC media lawyer Kevin Goldberg has been working for the repeal of so-called insult laws, like Turkey's, and he joins us now. Kevin, welcome to the show.
KEVIN GOLDBERG: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.
RICK KARR: Now, I understand that Turkey's not the only country with this kind of law on the books. Can you kind of step us through what countries around the world do have insult laws?
KEVIN GOLDBERG: They exist in virtually every country of the world, even the major Western democracies of Europe. They may not use them, but they exist on the books. They exist in Africa and Asia, of course, and they're used to a greater extent in many of the still totalitarian or dictatorial regimes there, but even France has this law on its books. Spain, in fact, is prosecuting a case right now using an insult law.
RICK KARR: The laws in other countries, when we talk about Spain or France having these laws, are those like the Turkish law, laws that prohibit insulting the nation, or are they laws that are more about protecting the reputation of public officials?
KEVIN GOLDBERG: These laws vary from country to country. Some do just protect the public officials. Some may go a little farther and protect the government itself. Some may go so far as to protect everything, including national symbols like the flag or the state seal.
RICK KARR: Why are these laws so widespread? Why are they on the books in so many countries?
KEVIN GOLDBERG: In some countries, such as France, or even the United Kingdom, they exist because they've existed for years, and much in the same way that we have anachronistic laws, such as adultery laws, that just are never used but still haven't been repealed, in other countries – such, as I noted, in Africa – they're a holdover from the colonial days. When the French owned many of the lands that are now independent nations in Africa, they had these laws in place.
RICK KARR: You mentioned that Spain is actually going after a couple of journalists right now. Can you tell us a little bit more about that case?
KEVIN GOLDBERG: It involves a newspaper that is no longer actually being published, INPRENSA. But the case is still being pursued against the editor, Jose Luis Gutierrez. And the article actually was published 10 years ago and reported the seizure in one of the southern port cities of five tons of hashish that was inside a truck owned by a company that belonged to the Moroccan royal family, King Hassan II, who himself has now died. The article itself was confirmed as truthful, but what constituted the basis for the prosecution under the insult law was the headline: Hassan II Family Enterprise Linked to Drug Trafficking. The two lower courts that found the defendants guilty of having, quote, "illegally disturbed His Majesty Hassan II's right to keep his honor," sentenced the defendant to a fine.
RICK KARR: Do these laws require that say, the family of King Hassan II go to the Spanish government and say, we've been defamed, please apply this law, or do the Spanish authorities in this case have the right to just go ahead and apply it on their own?
KEVIN GOLDBERG: The families don't have to specifically request prosecution, and that is what is most dangerous about these laws. They're applied in a haphazard manner. They're used to politically persecute opponents.
RICK KARR: I want to ask a question about how this might affect journalists in the United States. We've certainly seen in some countries, regardless of the fact that, say, an American journalist has never even set foot in that country, that because that journalist's work is available over the Internet in that country, that that journalist might be exposed to a libel prosecution. Is it possible that a United States journalist could actually be prosecuted under one of these laws in another country?
KEVIN GOLDBERG: Yes, that is a very astute and frightening observation. The fact is that many people have not paid full attention to the questions of jurisdiction that have been arising and have been decided, in many cases, to say that if you publish something on the Internet, you better be aware that your works will be read in other countries – in China, in Saudi Arabia, in Iraq – and that you should be considering yourself a subject to that country's jurisdiction. You know, if I publish something here in the United States that offended the honor of the Saudi royal family, I better not set foot in [LAUGHING] Saudi Arabia in my lifetime.
RICK KARR: Well, Kevin Goldberg, thanks very much for coming in and speaking with us.
KEVIN GOLDBERG: My pleasure.
RICK KARR: Kevin Goldberg is a lawyer who's working with the World Press Freedom Committee on that group's global campaign to eliminate so-called "insult laws."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, did the press go overboard to appear impartial in the Abramoff case, and was it too partial on a kidnapping?
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.