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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 November 2007, 14:47 GMT
Viewpoint: Media freedom dented
By William Horsley
Writer on European affairs

Was it lese majeste or just a good laugh? Scurrilous libel or a witty commentary on a topical issue for Spanish parents?

Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia
El Jueves poked ribald fun at the royal couple
A court in Spain has convicted Manel Fontdevila, cartoons editor of the popular satirical weekly magazine El Jueves, and cartoonist "Guillermo" of "damaging the prestige of the crown".

Both men received a hefty 3,000-euro (2,100) fine.

Their offence was to have published a cartoon last July making ribald fun of the heir to the Spanish throne, and of the government's scheme to encourage women to have more babies by giving mothers a special payment for each new birth.

It was a caricature of Prince Filipe having sex with his wife, Princess Letizia, and telling her: "Do you realise that if you get pregnant, it will be the closest thing to work I've done in my life?"

'More censorship'

The cartoon is funny, but the issue raised by its banning is serious. The episode has worrying echoes of last year's frenzied and violent protests against the cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad printed in European newspapers.

The offending copy of El Jueves
Spanish law gives special protection to royals
Those cartoonists faced death threats, a number of people died in disturbances around the world, and the end result was a defeat for freedom of expression.

In the Spanish case, censorship of the magazine has already taken place and will not be reversed. Within hours of the cartoon's appearance Spanish judges ordered the seizure of all copies of that edition of the magazine.

This is only one of a growing number of recent cases of media censorship or self-censorship in Europe that have arisen thanks to restrictive laws or monopolistic patterns of media ownership.

Some, like the Spanish case, involve attempts to prosecute journalists for violating laws that give special protection to the most powerful and privileged figures in public life.

In Romania, a law has just been passed which exposes journalists to the risk of seven years in jail if they publish video footage taken secretly of politicians taking bribes. It follows a case in which film of a government minister accepting a secret cash payment was shown on TV, leading to his resignation.

In France, a newspaper expose written during this year's presidential election campaign, revealing that Cecilia Sarkozy - the then wife of winning candidate Nicolas Sarkozy - failed to cast her vote, was removed on orders from the newspaper's owner, a close associate of the new President.

In Turkey, the infamous Article 301 of the criminal code makes it an offence punishable by jail terms to insult the armed forces or those in positions of high office.

Criminal prosecutions

Turkish officials insist that similar laws protecting the holders of high offices of state also exist in France and other Western countries.

But a Turkish legal expert explained the difference: "It's like the laws in some American states that still ban oral sex between married couples", he said. "They exist on paper but are no longer used!"

In Turkey, hundreds of journalists have been prosecuted under Article 301 and similar laws.

Miklos Haraszti is Europe's chief enforcer of media freedom on the governments and courts of the 56 member states of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe).

He says that oppressive laws against the media, intimidation and threats of dismissal, are all being used as weapons to censor the work of journalists in Eastern and Western Europe today.

The latest evidence for that harsh verdict comes from a Survey of Media Freedom in 20 European states presented to the OSCE's Representative for Media Freedom last weekend. The study, entitled Goodbye to Freedom?, was published by the independent Association of European Journalists.

'Unusable' laws

It finds that within the past year alone, journalists in 18 out of 20 European countries - including would-be models of democracy like Germany, the Netherlands and France - have faced criminal prosecution, or been jailed for breaking various laws that impede them from reporting on matters of public interest. (The two exceptions were the Czech Republic and the UK.)

Yet each year dozens of judgements made by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg overturn the convictions of journalists on libel or secrecy charges in national courts.

So is it really time for the media in Europe to say "Goodbye to Freedom"? Miklos Haraszti says simply that European governments must not pass laws, like criminal libel for journalists, which are "unusable".

The prosecution and conviction of the cartoonists who published a funny sketch of a Spanish prince to make their viewers laugh has chipped away a bit more from the fragile pillar of media freedom in Europe.

William Horsley is media freedom representative for the Association of European Journalists.


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