The nation of Montenegro has taken another brave step into the future by decriminalizing both libel and defamation.
On 24 March, the Draft Law on Changes and Amendments to the Criminal Code granted protection from criminal prosecution of free speech to members of the media. The government of Montenegro just changed the law again to extend those protections to all Montenegrins.
The Ministry of Justice realized that the earlier situation led to an unacceptable situation where all citizens did not receive equal treatment under the law. This equality is exceptionally important in the Internet age, when there is very little difference between a newspaper reporter, a blogger, and a person with a Facebook account. All of these are legitimate news source and all deserve the same protection under the rule of law.
It is important to realize that these legal improvements protect free speech from criminal prosecution. Libel and defamation can still make you liable for damages in civil court. You won’t spend time in jail, but you might end up paying a large cash settlement to anyone you are determined to have wronged.
There is an old saying that is taught to children in many nations. It goes like this, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This feeling of strength and immunity from pain is not familiar to most Balkan cultures. Pride is very important here and people often have sensitive ego’s. The solution is to develop a strong ego which is not damaged by simple words. This is very hard for many people and often requires a lifetime of effort.
The decriminalization of free speech is likely to create many opportunities to choose between tolerance and intolerance. Putting up with other people’s opinions is often a strain on one’s patience. Thomas Jefferson, author of the American Declaration of Independence, wrote “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.” This is an important lesson to remember, although often not an easy one.