Reporters Without Borders and its Romanian partner organisation, the Media Monitoring Agency (MMA) voiced shock today at the constitutional court’s decision to reinstate defamation and insult as crimes under Romanian law.
In a ruling taken on 18 January but made public only two days ago, the court effectively overturned last year’s legislative amendments decriminalizing these press offences, declaring them to be unconstitutional despite opposition from both the government and parliament.
“This ruling is a significant step backwards, coming just a few weeks after Romania joined the European Union and after big improvements last year,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We call on the authorities to do everything possible to find a constitutional way to guarantee press freedom.”
The organisation added: “While we recognise the need to protect people’s dignity, we point out that the defence of free expression is essential to the proper functioning of a democratic society. Reinstating press offences in the criminal code will bring serious threats to bear on the work of journalists.”
The constitutional court said defamation and insult seriously violated personal dignity and “would led to permanent conflicts if they were not penally deterred.” The court’s judges argued that the damages envisaged in the civil code made no explicit reference to media offences and that, as “attacks on personal honour” were irreparable, such offences “must be regulated by the law.”
The court issued its decision in response to three petitions concerning defamation and insult cases, in which the plaintiffs argued that the criminal code reform deprived them of a legal way to obtain reparation. They court said they were right, and cited rulings issued by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in support of its ruling.
Reporters Without Borders and the MMA added: “ECHR jurisprudence simply requires that press offences be registered as such under the law. This is precisely the case in Romania, where - as the court acknowledged - the civil code punishes such offences. The constitutional court also cited the law in force in many European countries such as France, Germany and Italy to justify its position. The decriminalization of press offences throughout Europe is more necessary than ever.”
Justice minister Monica Macovei overcame considerable resistence when she finally got parliament to approve a far-reaching overhaul of the criminal code (Law 278/2006) last June. The constitutional court’s ruling could bury this reform for good as there is no appeal against its decisions.