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The desecration of national symbols as a crime

There are political and moral objections being voiced on Russia’s Supreme Court decision on Tuesday to criminalise the act of “insulting” the country’s national anthem, along with the country’s Coat of Arms and the flag.

Two points need to be made, for the record. First, more often than not, such laws become weapons against national minorities and journalists. Secondly, they are not unique to Russia.


Part of the issue at hand is that such insults can provide legitimation for arbitrary arrests. Those who commit such acts in Russia may have to pay fines ranging from €40 to €2,000 and/or a year in prison. This is the anthem of the former USSR, restored by Vladimir Putin in 2000, albeit with new lyrics.

The particular law draws attention as the Court linked its decision to an event that took place in Sevastopol in April, in the illegally annexed territory of Crimea. There, during a public event, the words of the national anthem were intentionally distorted while the song was being broadcasted on TV.

New legislation upheld by the Russian Court will now enlarge the scope of “insult” to include comments made online. Members of Parliament have for some time competed on the degree of patriotism, with a Communist MP, Vadim Solovyov, suggesting that making the anthem a ringtone for mobile phones should also be criminalised.


The criminalisation of insulting national symbols is not unusual as a practice, especially in countries with minority issues. The murdered Armenian journalist in Turkey, Hrant Dink, was known for his so-called “iconoclastic journalism.”

Turkish nationalists were particularly upset by Dink’s writings about the Armenian killings and his public criticism of lines in the Turkish national anthem that he considered discriminatory; expectedly he even had court cases filed against him before someone decided to kill him, in Istanbul, in broad daylight. Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, which prohibits insults to Turkish identity sets penalties of up to three years in prison. More often than not, 301 is used against the press. Dink’s son, Arat, was found guilty by a Turkish court for something his father wrote, months after his assassination, by virtue of the fact that he filled his post in Agos.


The desecration of the American flag became a symbol of resistance against the Vietnam War. In 1968, the US Congress introduced a Flag Protection Act, which was later enacted in48 of the 50 U.S. states. However, the US Supreme Court overturned all this legislation in 1989 and again in 1990 as an unconstitutional infringement on public expression. Currently, there is a whole movement of those advocating the US Constitution should be amended to allow for the protection of national symbols.


National “insult” laws vary significantly across the European Union.

On the basis of the functioning of the internal market, the European Commission has on occasion recommended that such laws are harmonised. But, this has not happened. Most EU member states have some sort of criminal sanctions against those who defame national symbols.

In particular member states – Poland, Spain, Greece – there are insult laws that are enforced although these are regularly overturned by the European Court of Human Rights. In 2008, Oxford University found considerable variants in the costs of defamation actions across the EU, from around €600 in Cyprus and Bulgaria to €1,000,000 in Ireland.

(CPJ, Interfax, Moscow Times, RT,  Xindex)