Ireland repeals blasphemy law - who's next?

By Jane Whyatt and Ronan Fahy

Oh my God! OMG is such a common utterance in social media that no-one even notices it any more. But taking in vain the name of God – anyone’s God – is still a crime in many European countries. 

Ireland repeals blasphemy laws - who's next? Map: ECPMF

One of them is Germany. Yet the German Foreign Ministry is offering asylum to a Pakistani Christian woman, Asia Bibi,  who faced the death sentence in her own country until she was acquitted and set free. The court decision prompted fears for her safety in because of protests by Islamic groups. Dutch MEP Peter van Halen will raise her case at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

Meanwhile press freedom campaigners have welcomed Ireland’s referendum vote to repeal its Blasphemy Law in late October 2018. It followed a similar decision in Denmark in 2017. 

In Ireland it became an issue in 2015 when the British comedian Stephen Fry made anti-God criticisms on RTÉ TV (Irish public service television). They included the rhetorical question Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world full of injustice and pain?

Fry has 12.8 million Twitter followers, and 78% of the Irish population identifies as Christian (Roman Catholic). So his outburst provoked a public debate about whether or not his words were blasphemous. The police investigated but decided in 2017 not to prosecute.

Facebook video

Denmark repealed its blasphemy law in 2017. It was ancient, dating back to 1683. In the 21st century it came to public attention when a Danish man filmed himself burning a copy of the Muslim holy scripture, the Q’uran, and posted the video on Facebook. He was charged with blasphemy. But before the case could come to court, the law was repealed.

Twelve  European countries still have blasphemy laws and penalties, some of which include prison terms. They are Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lichtenstein, Montenegro, Poland, Spain, Turkey, UK (Scotland and Northern Ireland). ECPMF’s partner, the International Press Institute (IPI), has produced a comprehensive guide as part of its 2017 research for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. (OSCE)

The International Humanist and Ethical Union is campaigning to have all such laws repealed throughout the world. Humanists believe that religions and religious persons, buildings, books and artefacts should not receive special treatment before the law.

Legal expert Ronan Fahy of the University of Amsterdam explains that blasphemy is distinct from religious discrimination, inciting racial hatred and anti-semitism (hatred directed at the Jewish faith) and islamophobia (denigrating Muslims and their beliefs).  

In this interview with ECPMF, the views expressed are Ronan Fahy's own expert opinions.

What do blasphemy laws mean for press freedom?

Blasphemy laws are incompatible with freedom of expression, and are a fundamental threat to press freedom, particularly for cartoonists and authors. As The Irish Times editorial stated, blasphemy is a “medieval crime that has no place in a pluralist republic.”[1]

How is blasphemy different from hate speech, incitement to racial hatred, anti-Semitism and islamophobia?

The UN Human Rights Committee makes the following distinction: blasphemy laws prohibit displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief systems, criticism of religious leaders or religious doctrine and tenets of faith; and such laws are incompatible with freedom of expression. However, advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited, according to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

What legal protections exist for atheists, agnostics and those of no faith?

While I consider such laws incompatible with freedom of expression, atheists could use group defamation or insult laws. It should be remembered that Charlie Hebdo was sued for group insult by Muslim organisations for publishing cartoons of Muhammad, and was sued 13 times by Catholic organisations over depictions of Christianity. While I would never encourage this, any group could also attempt to use defamation laws, such as the terrible example where the British Chiropractic Association sued an author for defamation over a Guardian article criticising the alternative medicine chiropractic.

Is there a difference between the application of the law in the real world and online instances of blasphemy?

Blasphemy laws should be abolished, and no distinction should be made between freedom of expression online or offline. As the UN Human Rights Committee states, the right to freedom of expression protects all forms of expression and the means of their dissemination.

Where next?

The New Zealand Parliament is currently debating a Crimes Amendment Bill that will abolish the crime of blasphemous libel and there is a movement for abolition in Indonesia. However other European countries have yet to follow Ireland’s example.


Get in Contact

fact finding mission analysis