The intellectual trap of exploring a new place — whether through actual travel or by reading a book set there — is the practically unconscious assumption that we can generalize. Having just finished The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, for example, I’m needing to remind myself that I have no fast, reliable way of verifying whether Stieg Larsson’s absorbing fictional depiction of Swedes and Sweden matches up even slightly with reality. Part of Larsson’s premise, though, is verifiably real: There are places, including Sweden, where journalists can be brought up on criminal charges for defaming someone in print.
Some of these places are in the U.S. As a former American newspaper reporter, I should have known this. Let me just stipulate to being ignorant and provincial, so we can get back to looking at Sweden.
To put Sweden’s laws in perspective, here are two maps produced by the anti-censorship organization Article 19. The first map marks Sweden — and much of the world — as having criminal defamation laws. The second map indicates that in Sweden there were “no known cases” of journalists being punished for defamation between 2005 and 2007.
Some countries, according to that second map, had punished five or more journalists during that same time: China, Uzbekistan, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Philippines.
Searching for the words “criminal defamation” on the Committee to Protect Journalists web site returns a mix of results. CPJ heralds “Criminal defamation eliminated in Argentina.” More typically, though, CPJ is protesting, as in “Blogger faces criminal defamation charges in Morocco” or “U.S. PUBLISHER AND EDITOR CONVICTED OF CRIMINAL DEFAMATION.”
It’s a rich topic. One inexact measure of that richness is that I have twenty windows open in my web browser right now. Linking to all of them would be overkill. So I won’t.
This post doesn’t claim to be comprehensive and I don’t claim to have a solid grasp of criminal defamation laws around the world. Rather, I’m just using this post to note something I find cool: You can set out to read a crime novel and end up with twenty open windows in your web browser and a bit of new knowledge about the world.