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Making blasphemy an offence takes Europe back several centuries

January 4, 2010

Reporters Without Borders condemns “with the utmost firmness” a new defamation law in Ireland that establishes blasphemy as an offence punishable by a fine of up to 25,000 euros. The law took effect on 1 January.

Article 36 defines blasphemy as publishing or uttering “matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion.” It adds that judges could regard “genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value” as a defence.

“Originally envisaged as a way to bring Ireland’s press legislation up to date, this already highly questionable law is much more than just an adjustment,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Its definition of blasphemy leaves a lot of room for arbitrary interpretation. Who will decide or rule on the ‘sacred’ nature of a belief that is generally only determined by those who share it? How many adherents are needed to be counted as ‘substantial’? Who is going to be responsible for this strange calculation?

“The very concept of blasphemy concerns only believers and cannot be applied to those who regard themselves as atheists or non-believers. Blasphemy law must under no circumstances be allowed to limit free expression.

“It is very dangerous to leave to the evaluation of such a concept to judges. The maximum possible fine is also totally disproportionate. It is perfectly legitimate and acceptable to criticise religions and even to deny their validity. This is an opinion and, as such, should not be subject to any judicial sanction. As it stands, this law offers legal grounds to religious extremists of all kinds, it allows them to use the force of the law to impose their views. Ireland has just taken the European Union back several centuries and has clearly not weighed the future consequences.

“We urge the European Council to take up this issue and to ask Ireland to repeal the article defining blasphemy as an offence. While all of Europe’s citizens must clearly be able to practice their religion freely and without being threatened, it is just as important that those who make a different choice should be able to enjoy the same guarantees without being exposed to any possible sanction.

“At time when many governments are trying to use the United Nations to establish a similar law at the international level, the European Union must adopt a clear position, in accordance with its founding principles and with articles 10 and 11 of its Charter of Fundamental Rights. In the months to come, we will pursue initiatives with this goal in mind.”

The wording of the law

The European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights

Atheist Ireland
Follow the activities of Atheist Ireland, a group that has decided to test the new law and test judges by posting a list of 25 quotations online that could be considered blasphemous. Some of the quotations come from the New Testament.

For more information contact:
Reporters without Borders
Phone: 33 1 44 83 84 84

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