For only the second time since World War II, the Brussels’ Chamber of Indictment has referred a press offence to be trialed by a jury, before the Assise Court. A press offence is any abuse of the freedom of expression such as libel and slander (Article 383 of the Belgian Criminal Code); written insult (Art. 448 BCC); or obscene or indecent writings (Art. 383 BCC) that is committed by using the (printing) press and which is made public. A press offence is therefore only distinct from other offences, in the way that it is committed through the press. According to the Supreme Court, the criminal expression of an idea or opinion through printed and published writings constitutes a press offence.
Article 150 of the Belgian Constitution provides that all press offences, except for those which are inspired by racism or xenophobia should be trialed by jury.
However, since 1941 only one case of a press offence has been trialed by the Assise Court. Usually, the Court’s Chamber of Indictment finds that the conditions for a press offence have not been fulfilled, in which case the matter is dealt with by the correctional courts, or that the case has been statute-barred. Not so in this case.
The facts concern a university professor who has sent allegedly libelous e-mails to other members of the faculty about one of his colleagues. This colleague subsequently filed charges for libel and slander. Where usually such cases are dealt with by the correctional courts or even the civil courts, in this case the defendant argued that it concerned a press offence and that it should therefore be dealt with by a jury trial. The Court’s Chamber of Indictment confirmed this and referred the case to the Court of Assise. Following the judgment of the Chamber of Indictment, the prosecutor will now have to schedule the case on the Assise Court’s agenda.