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Japan makes online insults a crime that can earn a year in jail

Law will be reviewed after three years amid debate on free speech vs civility

Japan has updated its penal code to make insulting people online a crime punishable by a year of incarceration.

An amendment [PDF] that passed the House of Councillors (Japan's upper legislative chamber) on Monday spells out that insults designed to hurt the reader can now attract increased punishments.

Supporters of the amended law cite the death of 22-year-old wrestler and reality TV personality Hana Kimura as a reason it was needed. On the day she passed away, Kimura shared images of self-harm and hateful comments she'd received on social media. Her death was later ruled a suicide.

Three men were investigated for their role in Kimura's death. One was fined a small sum, and another paid around $12,000 of damages after a civil suit brought by Kimura's family.

Before the amendment, Japanese law allowed for 30 days inside for insults, or fines up to ¥10,000 ($75). The law now permits up to a year inside and imposes a ceiling of ¥300,000 ($2,200) on fines.

The law has been given a three-year sunset clause – a reflection of debate about its possible chilling effect on free speech.

After the amendment was passed, Japan's Justice Ministry was asked if the change was appropriate given international efforts to exclude defamation from criminal law and ensure it cannot result in incarceration, and if Japan's efforts to protect online rights might therefore harm its reputation for human rights. A Ministry spokesperson rejected the possibility of that outcome.

Other nations have taken a different approach to curbing insulting online speech, with measures that compel platforms to take down posts that draw complaints, or that require the unmasking of anonymous trolls.

Australia recently floated a bill that would allow those defamed online to compel material to be taken down – an extension of a court ruling that found the comments section on articles could make publishers liable for commenters' remarks. That bill was not passed before an election at which Australia's government changed, leaving its future in doubt. ®

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