The criminal libel statute in Colorado as of 1989 reflected two of the categories of libel that were historically illegal at common law, even when the statements were true, although these claims are no longer actionable in defamation claims in U.S. law (as a result of Garrison v. Louisiana, 379 US 64 (1964)). The Colorado statute was as follows:
On April 13, 1989, the defendant was charged with criminal libel in
violation of section 18-13-105, 8B C.R.S. (1986). That section
(1) A person who shall knowingly publish or disseminate, either by
written instrument, sign, pictures, or the like, any statement or
object tending to blacken the memory of one who is dead, or to impeach
the honesty, integrity, virtue, or reputation or expose the natural
defects of one who is alive, and thereby to expose him to public
hatred, contempt, or ridicule, commits criminal libel.
(2) It shall be an affirmative defense that the publication was
true, except libels tending to blacken the memory of the dead and
libels tending to expose the natural defects of the living.
(3) Criminal libel is a class 5 felony.
People v. Ryan (Colo. App. 1991) reinstating criminal libel charges not based on a truthful statement (subsequently repealed legislatively). I suspect, but do not know, that the common law rule restated in this statute remains the law in some common law countries.
Monarchies also often criminalize or make actionable, negative statements about the monarch whether or not they are true.
Here is a brief summary of the common law history:
Modern criminal libel law can be traced back to the 16th century
English Star Chamber, which heard state security cases behind closed
doors. The Star Chamber controlled defamatory statements about the
monarchy by making it a crime to utter or print them. Under these
sedition laws, a truthful statement that defamed the government was
considered worse than a blatantly false one because it was even more
likely to erode people’s confidence in government.
In early American history, where government was liberally criticized
despite English sedition laws, free speech was codified in the Bill of
Not that the First Amendment hasn’t been tested. In 1798 Congress
passed the Sedition Act, punishing writings or statements against the
government, in response to aggressive criticism of government
officials by journalists including Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson
of the famed publisher and inventor. The government arrested and
jailed Bache under the Act.
The Sedition Act expired in 1801.
In the early 1800s, however, many states enacted criminal libel laws
to dissuade people from avenging slights to their reputation with guns
and duels, Brougham, the lawyer in the Mink case, said. Those deadly
shootouts were referenced in the Supreme Court’s Garrison decision,
quoting one 19th century advocate of Louisiana’s criminal libel law:
“Defamation, either real or supposed, is the cause of most of those
combats which no laws have yet been able to suppress.”
By the mid-1950s, many states had adopted truth alone as a defense to
The Garrison opinion in 1964 noted the changing mores of modern times
and questioned how such criminal libel statutes fit in a culture
dedicated to preserving the First Amendment. The Court quoted the
Model Penal Code of the American Law Institute, a guide to criminal
sanctions across the country, that “penal sanctions cannot be
justified merely by the fact that defamation is evil or damaging to a
person in ways that entitle him to maintain a civil suit.”
Authorities from the American Law Institute recommend states implement
only “narrowly drawn statutes, designed to reach words tending to
cause a breach of the peace” or “designed to reach speech especially
likely to lead to public disorders,” Brennan wrote in Garrison.
It isn't even entirely certain that truth is always a defense in criminal libel cases, although this is the majority view (from the same source):
While truth is an absolute defense in civil libel lawsuits, in some
states the veracity of a statement may not offer much of a shield
against criminal libel charges.
For example, Colorado’s statute says the truth is a defense to the
crime except with “libels tending to blacken the memory of the dead
and libels tending to expose the natural defects of the living.”
Because this statute is still around, it could result in arguably
unlawful prosecution against truthful statements, although such a
claim would be dismissed by most courts. . . .
Wisconsin’s defamation statute, punishable by a fine of up to $10,000
and nine months in prison, applies to defamatory statements
disseminated to a third person without consent. Defamatory matter
includes anything that exposes someone to ridicule, even if the
statement is true.
The way that one gets there is different in common law countries, where the relevant rules arose out of a shared body of case law, and in civil law countries, where defamation's history is shared less with fraud (as it is in U.S. law) and more with harassment, incivility, and disturbing the peace as in the cases of Sweden mentioned in another answer and in Germany, where criminal libel cases are commonplace (but civil defamation lawsuits are rare).
The U.K. reformed its defamation laws in 2013 and truth is currently an absolute defense to defamation claims there. It appears that this is also the case in Australia (which has also abolished criminal libel) and in New Zealand.
Canada (outside Quebec) is somewhat less protective of free speech with, and as of 2006, one commentator stated that:
For all the lofty quotes about free speech in Canadian jurisprudence,
the reality is that our libel laws are the least protective of free
speech in the English-speaking world.
As the link above explains:
At common law, defamation covers any communication that tends to lower
the esteem of the subject in the minds of ordinary members of the
public. The perspective measuring the esteem is highly contextual, and
depends on the view of the potential audience of the communication and
their degree of background knowledge. Probably true statements are not
excluded, nor are political opinions unless explicitly stated as such.