Defamation, largely in a legal vacuum

Proposal for the 4th Safi International Conference on Punishment.

Claudia Gigler, Barbara Degen, Ulrike Reiche, Zita Küng

This conference is about punishment and sanctions. But what if harmful behaviour escapes the existing criminal offences?

We want to talk about „defamation“ – the belittling and „silencing“ of women in leadership positions, the minimization of their scope for action through defamation, with the aim of badmouthing these women, isolating them, ultimately forcing them to withdraw.

This is about targeted, long-lasting damaging action against women and against organizations that support women and represent certain positions related to equal treatment. It’s about the use of violence that is more subtle than direct attack; about violence, which unfolds its effect in the interaction of several participants on different levels.

It’s about humiliation and devaluation of women, which often leads to withdrawal and silence, up to the point of paralysis because there are no instruments available that would enable resistance. It’s about economic disadvantages, including loss of livelihood and expropriation of intellectual property.

Punishment by perpetrators

We are facing punishment administered by perpetrators, not by the state. The defamators practice a kind of vigilantism, they (re)establish the order they want. 

“Defamation” is not a separate criminal offence in German, Austrian and Swiss criminal law. Defaming behaviour is only punishable if it constitutes an offence of insult, libel or slander.

Prevention against „defamation“ is not a learned and established quality of corporate culture. Unlike in the case of sexual assault and sexualised violence, measures against “defamation” are usually not provided for.

Legal and ethical norms

In order to get the victims of defamation out of isolation, the subjective perception of the crime must be objectified through a new bundling of partial facts that reflect the overall picture: 

Criminal law is traditionally understood to be independent of the interests of the victims. The state sues. In the Swiss code of civil procedure, there is a representative action under private law, which supports collective legal protection. This sort of collective legal protection for several injured parties could also be considered in criminal law. 

Ethical norms clearly indicate the infringement of limits to be sanctioned, but the corresponding legal norms are missing. This gap must be filled. Institutions must be held accountable and they must be judged on whether they meet their responsibilities. This needs to also be measured by the willingness to impose sanctions

Duty of care

The employer’s duty of care must be redefined conceptually. Mediation centers for cases of defamation must be established with the obligation to develop catalogs of criteria for compliance with ethical standards such as equality, human dignity and non-violence, in order to base the processing of cases on them. The cases must be published anonymously. 

In Italy, very recently a debate has been emerging about whether parents of minors are responsible for and should be punished for bullying in schools because they disturb ‚civil coexistence‘ inside or outside schools. Similarly, a “liability” of the persons and institutions responsible for the damage that women suffer as a result of defamation should be discussed. 

Not blaming the women, blaming the system“ should be the objective, also and especially in connection with defamation.

Here you find the German version.

About us:

Claudia Gigler, Barbara Degen, Ulrike Reiche and Zita Küng are members of, a group of experts from the DACH region who meet regularly to exchange views and information about dealing with defamation. 

Dr. Barbara Degen is a lawyer and does research on women’s history. She is co-founder of the Feminist Legal Institute and the Haus der FrauenGeschichte in Bonn and she is an author („Das Herz schlägt in Ravensbrück. Die Gedenkkultur der Frauen“, „Justitia ist eine Frau. Geschichte und Symbolik der Gerechtigkeit“). 

Mag. Claudia Gigler studied German and English and is a journalist, moderator and trainer. She is a board member of FELIN (Female Leaders Initiative) and teaches “Communication theory – gender and diversity” at FH Joanneum in Graz. 

Lic. iur. Zita Küng is a lawyer, organizational developer and women’s rights activist in Zurich. She is a board member at fem! (Faculty of Feminism), FRI (Institut suisse d’études juridiques féministes et gender law) and StrukturElle. She runs the agency EQuality and focuses on the promotion of young female high potentials.

Ulrike Reiche is a certified banking specialist and business analyst, author and systemic organizational consultant with a focus on leadership, compatibility, diversity and resilience. She is a board member at fem! (Faculty of Feminism) and co-initiator of the FrauenForum Konstanz. As part of the #CloseEconDataGap initiative, she is committed to data-based visibility of the care gap and the resulting economic injustice. 

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