The concept is simple. If I'm in the wrong country and write something like, "Politician X is stupid," then I can be sent to to jail for it.
The laws, which can be found in dozens of countries, "make it a crime to insult public officials, or in some cases, to insult any individual, group or religion," as Tony Mauro writes. And they're an effective way to keep journalists from looking too closely at what authority figures are up to – or from commenting negatively on their actions.
Imagine if we had something like this in America: After Scooter Libby gets his sentence commuted, Gawker points out that "A man who ended the career of a C.I.A. agent in an attempt to forestall criticism of manipulated and outright false intelligence designed to lead this country into a war it did not need to fight, and then lied about it, will spend less time in prison than Paris Hilton."
The Wall Street Journal writes that "Mr. Bush is evading responsibility for the role his Administration played in letting the Plame affair build into fiasco and, ultimately, this personal tragedy."
Get the idea?
Here, per Mauro, are some examples of how this has played out around the world:
*In Egypt, blogger Abdul Kareem Nabeel Suleiman is serving a four-year jail term for insulting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and for "contempt of religion."The World Association of Newspapers and the World Editors Forum are now fighting these laws, with a focus on Africa, whose leaders are now meeting in Ghana. "The African press is crippled by a wide array of repressive measures, from the jailing and prosecution of journalists to the widespread scourge of 'insult laws' and criminal defamation," says WAN. It adds that insult laws are used "ruthlessly, to prevent critical appraisal of their performance and to deprive the public from information about their misdemeanours." In the first five months of this year, the laws "led to the harassment, arrest or imprisonment of 103 journalists in 26 African countries."
*The Philippines' "first gentleman" Jose Miguel Arroyo, husband of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, has sued more than 40 Philippine journalists under insult laws for reporting on allegations of corruption against him. Arroyo even sued one columnist for describing him as "the fat spouse," which Arroyo said was "obviously meant to denigrate me for my rotundity."
*Journalist Hrant Dink was murdered in Istanbul in January after being prosecuted repeatedly under a Turkish law that makes it a crime to insult "Turkishness."
No matter where you come down on the Libby decision – and those on both the left and the right have certainly been vocal in their criticism – this is a stark reminder of how much worse things could be.