Seditious libel law is a travesty of justice
01 Apr 09

evan_harrisThe UK government’s retention of this archaic legislation only serves to justify oppression in other countries, writes
Evan Harris

In 1763, journalist John Wilkes and 49 of his publishers were arrested for seditious libel. Their crime was to have written and disseminated an editorial criticising the state, in the person of King George III.

It would be unthinkable for the state to use such power today — but nearly 250 years on, the laws of sedition still sit in this country’s statute books. Theoretically, every time a journalist harangues the government, or a comedian insults the crown, they are liable to be arrested.

We also still have the closely related criminal defamation laws. Under the usual, civil, libel laws, if you can show your allegations against someone are true, you can’t be found guilty of libel. But with criminal libel, the truth is not a full defence. You have to show that publication (of the truth) was in the public interest. In theory, you can be convicted for telling the truth.

It is not acceptable that 21st-century Britain hasn’t got rid of these laws yet. That’s why I, along with English PEN, Index on Censorship, Liberty, Article 19, and many others, have come together to campaign for their abolition. The Coroners and Justice Bill is currently making its tortuous way through Parliament, and it is a large beast of a bill which is a struggle to scrutinise. But such a portmanteau bill is the opportunity I have been looking for to table amendments which would repeal these ridiculous bits of legislation.

Some might ask what the point is — the Draconian laws have not been used for years, and it is highly unlikely any UK government would dare to change that any time soon.

Well, for one, it is good housekeeping — there is no point having laws that we don’t want to use just hanging around like a bad smell.

But far more importantly, the fact that the UK has such laws is used as a convenient excuse for repressive regimes worldwide to have, and to use, their own. In such countries there is not only a ‘chilling effect’ — people being too afraid to air criticism of the authorities and elites — but citizens are regularly prosecuted for speaking out.

Anwar al-Bunni, a lawyer, was arrested in Syria for signing a human rights declaration that ‘harmed the dignity of the State’. Senegalese journalists Faydy Drame and Jean Meissa Diop were given a six-month (suspended) jail term for writing allegations that a particular car model was defective.

British citizens David and Fiona Fulton have been sentenced to a year’s hard labour in The Gambia, after sending emails that criticised the authorities there. Another UK citizen, Giles Ji Ungpakorn, escaped punishment when he fled Thailand after criticising that country’s 2006 coup.

The list goes on and on. But we can make sure that these laws don’t. Writers, journalists, activists, and citizens worldwide are looking to Britain to lead the way. After all, how can we criticise other nations, when we haven’t got our own house in order? John Wilkes would be turning in his grave. As comedian and activist Mark Thomas has said, ‘I hope MPs will weed out the ancient, twisted law of seditious libel so I can get on with the job of describing them accurately.’

Evan Harris is Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon.