Slovak prosecutors should drop charges against an opinion writer accused of defaming religious believers, the International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists, said today.

The opinion writer, Michal Havran, is accused of defaming the faith of Catholic believers through a 2018 article in which he mocked and sharply criticized a Catholic priest, Marian Kuffa, who is known for his radically conservative social views and links to the far-right People’s Party – Our Slovakia (L’SNS). The article was published in the leading daily SME.

Police investigators concluded that Havran’s article called for the suppression of religious people’s freedom of expression and “defames the expressions of their faith”, and charged him with defamation on account of religious belief under Article 423 of the Slovak Criminal Code. The charges carry a potential sentence of one to three years in prison. Havran is further charged with slander, which also carries a possible jail sentence in Slovakia.

While the article employed strong and unsparing language, it was clearly aimed at criticizing Kuffa, a highly controversial public figure in Slovakia, and what Havran viewed as the priest’s problematic social and political influence.

“Conflating criticism of a public figure – however strongly expressed – with defaming or restricting the religious beliefs of his followers is absurd and sets a dangerous precedent”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “Freedom of expression includes the right of journalists and writers to question the views of religious figures and religious dogma without the threat of being jailed. We urge prosecutors to drop all charges against Michal Havran.”

The U.N. Human Rights Committee has concluded that the use of laws to “prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith” violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Slovakia is a signatory. Similar statements have been issued by the OSCE Representative on Fredom of the Media and experts convened by the U.N. high commissioner for human rights.

IPI has regularly called for the removal of all criminal defamation laws on the basis that they may be easily abused to retaliate against journalists.