Laws of sedition and criminal libel are outdated and will be abolished, Justice Minister Lord Bach announced today.
Sedition is the act of inciting hatred or contempt against the institutions of the state – including acts tending to excite disaffection against the Sovereign or institutions of Government.
Seditious libel consists of publication of seditious material in a permanent form.
The offence of criminal libel – also known as defamatory libel – is the publication of defamatory matter in writing, or any other permanent form, which is calculated to expose a person to public hatred, contempt or ridicule. Crown prosecutors can press charges for criminal libel if it is thought to be in the public interest.
Lord Bach said foreign governments had used the the existence of the sedition and criminal libel laws in England and Wales to justify restrictions on press freedoms.
“Sedition and defamatory libel are arcane offences – from a bygone era when freedom of expression wasn’t seen as the right it is today,” he said.
“The retention of these obsolete offences in this country has been cited by other countries as justification for the retention of similar laws which have been actively used to restrict press freedom.
“The Government has listened to the concerns raised in Parliament and by other interested parties and will therefore be tabling these amendments.”
The Government intends to abolish the laws through planned amendments to the Coroners and Justice Bill, currently going through Parliament.
The reform move comes more than 30 years after the Law Commission provisionally recommended the abolition of the offence of sedition in its Working Paper No.72 in 1977, on treason, sedition and allied offences.
In 1985 the Law Commission said in a Report on Criminal Libel that the common law offence of defamatory libel should be replaced with a narrowly drawn statutory offence.
Some countries, such as Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Zimbabwe use criminal libel laws to criminalise publications which in the United Kingdom would be considered to be civil matters only, and to suppress freedom of speech.
In Thailand, for example, a writer found guilty of criminal libel can not only be fined but also jailed for a considerable period.