Right to Freedom of Expression, Association and Religion

II. Decriminalization of Insult and Libel

Even though many international organizations urge to cherish the freedoms of speech, self-expression and media by abolishing criminal liability for insult and libel, such liability has not yet been abolished in Lithuania.

In 2013-2014, there were attempts to decriminalize insults and libel – at the end of 2013, amendments to the Criminal Code[1] and the Code of Administrative Offences[2] were registered in the Parliament, which sought to eliminate criminal liability not only for insulting a person, but also for contempt of court as well as for insulting public servants or persons carrying out the function of public administration, with libel only being applying to cases where untrue information concerning another person – that he allegedly committed a crime – is published. The government did not approve of these amendments.[3]

Even though the authors of the bill proposed administrative sanctions for insulting the dignity and honour of a public servant or a person carrying out the function of public administration, what is important is that insults to any other person who is not a civil servant were left outside the remit of legal liability – the draft law did not propose amending or supplementing the rules governing the defence of personal honour and dignity by civil law, where the defence of personal dignity and honour is available only in the event of false news being spread, but not in the event of insulting opinions or evaluations. In other words, should the draft law be adopted, there would be no liability for insulting another person (who is not an officer or a civil servant), and the insulted person would not be able to defend himself against the insulting information, which would not have to have basis in reality.

2014 saw the return of cassation appeals against court rulings and judgments in private prosecution cases.[4]  This can more effectively ensure uniformity in the case law relating to insults and libel.

A special threat to the freedom of speech and the freedom of expression is posed by the criminal proceedings for libel and insults brought against journalists.

The criminal proceedings in private prosecution cases for libel and insult are unusual: there is no pre-trial investigation, unless it is necessary to determine the identity of the person disseminating the information, which is why the court, instead of examining the evidence submitted, has to gather it at its own initiative, setting aside its habitual role as arbitrator.[5] The status of the defendant in this category of criminal proceedings is acquired without the need for detailed examination of the evidence, usually based solely on the victim's complaint.

Criminal proceedings for libel and insults brought against journalists pose a special threat to the freedom of speech and the freedom of expression. In 2012, out of 45 cases tried in the Vilnius City District Court, seven involved charges against journalists; all were acquitted by final judgments in their respective cases.[6] 

Findings and Recommendations 

  • The decriminalization of libel and insult must be accompanied by other systemic amendments to the law: when abolishing criminal liability for personal insult or slander, it is necessary to supplement the Code of Administrative Offences or the Civil Code with provisions allowing persons to defend themselves against the dissemination of information that is degrading to them.
  • Libel and insult cases based on a private accusation preclude pre-trial investigations, which why courts must not only examine the evidence, but also collect it at its own initiative; this negatively impacts the court's role as an impartial arbiter.
  • The possibility of lodging a cassation appeal against a court ruling or judgment in a private prosecution case, returned in 2014, should in the future more effectively ensure that the case law on libel and insult remains uniform.

[1] Draft Law Amending the title of Chapter XXII, Amending Article 154 of and Repealing Articles 155, 232 and 290 of the Criminal Code, 23 December 2013, No. XIIP-1420, http://www3.lrs.lt/pls/inter3/dokpaieska.showdoc_l?p_id=463171&p_tr2=2

[2] Draft Law Supplementing Article 187 of the Code of Administrative Offences, 23 December 2013, No. XIIP-1421, http://www3.lrs.lt/pls/inter3/dokpaieska.showdoc_l?p_id=463174&p_tr2=2

[3] Resolution No. 494 of the Government "On Draft Law No. XIIP-1420 Amending the title of Chapter XXII, Amending Article 154 of and Repealing Articles 155, 232 and 290 of the Criminal Code and Draft Law No. XIIP-1421 Draft Law Supplementing Article 187 of the Code of Administrative Offences", dated 4 June 2014, http://www3.lrs.lt/pls/inter3/dokpaieska.showdoc_l?p_id=473410&p_tr2=2

[4] Law Amending Articles 37, 102, 233, 240, 243, 244, 261, 273, 314, 323, 361, 362, 3621, 364, 367, 440, 441, 442 and Including Article 2421 to the Code of Criminal Proceedings, 13 March 2014, No. XII-775, http://www3.lrs.lt/pls/inter3/oldsearch.preps2?a=467420&b=  

[5] Lithuanian Bar Association, "The ability to abuse private prosecutions stems from unclear legal regulations", 29 April 2013, http://www.advoco.lt/lt/advokatams-padejejams/naujienos-advokatams/lietuvos-advokatura-piktnaudziauti-y8vj.html

[6] Lithuanian Bar Association, "The ability to abuse private prosecutions stems from unclear legal regulations", 29 April 2013, http://www.advoco.lt/lt/advokatams-padejejams/naujienos-advokatams/lietuvos-advokatura-piktnaudziauti-y8vj.html