A colonial-era law intended to suppress the voice of freedom continues in force in India, but Britain itself abolished sedition as a criminal offence in 2009 as it was considered to be a relic of an era where freedom of expression was not considered a right as it is now.
Sedition was abolished through the Coroners and Justice Act, 2009, under Gordon Brown’s Labour government. Three offences were abolished: the offences of sedition and seditious libel; the offence of defamatory libel; and the offence of obscene libel.
The then Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, Claire Ward, said at the time of the act’s enactment: “Sedition and seditious and defamatory libel are arcane offences - from a bygone era when freedom of expression wasn’t seen as the right it is today”.
“Freedom of speech is now seen as the touchstone of democracy, and the ability of individuals to criticise the state is crucial to maintaining freedom”.
Britain’s Law Commission had recommended the abolition of the law of sedition in 1977.
According to Claire, “The existence of these obsolete offences in this country had been used by other countries as justification for the retention of similar laws which have been actively used to suppress political dissent and restrict press freedom.”
“Abolishing these offences will allow the UK to take a lead in challenging similar laws in other countries, where they are used to suppress free speech.”
Sedition and criminal libel evolved from some of Britain’s oldest laws, such as the Statute of Westminster 1275, when the divine right of the King and the principles of a feudal society were not questioned.
According to the writers association English PEN, seditious libel was established by the Star Chamber case De Libellis Famosis of 1606. Not only was truth no defence, but intention was irrelevant, as was the actual harm (reputational or otherwise) done by the libel. Punishments for the crime included imprisonment and the loss of the offenders’ ears.
Seditious libel (criticism of the government) was closely linked to blasphemous libel (criticism of religion), since church and state were interchangeable at the time. Blasphemy and blasphemous libel was abolished in 2008 as part of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008.
Criminal libel and seditious libel laws were used extensively in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, most famously against the renegade MP and civil rights campaigner John Wilkes, whose publication, ‘North Briton’, was declared a seditious libel and publicly burned.