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CRIMINAL DEFAMATION CONTROVERSY IN KANSAS

Two journalists are facing criminal defamation charges in the state of Kansas, reports the International Press Institute (IPI), in contradiction with international principles stating that defamation should be dealt with using civil rather than criminal law. David Carson and Edward H. Powers Jr, publisher and editor of "The New Observer", respectively, will appear in court on 10 April to face ten misdemeanour charges for criminal defamation, says IPI. They could face a fine of up to US$ 2,500 and one year in prison. Eight of the charges are based on statements in "The New Observer" that Carol Marinovich, the mayor of Wyandotte County's Unified Government, and her husband, a District Court judge, do not live in the county and therefore cannot hold public office in it. In the past, the newspaper has criticised both Marinovich and Wyandotte County District Attorney Nick Tomasic, who filed the charges. Tomasic denies that his decision is politically motivated, claiming that he filed charges because the allegations made by Powers and Carson were "false and malicious".

IPI condemns the charges and states that defamation should be dealt with under civil rather than criminal law, adding that "experiences in many democracies, including the US, show that civil damages provide ample redress to harm caused to an individual's reputation." The organisation notes that criminal sanctions such as imprisonment are a serious threat to journalism, and that "criminal defamation laws are the preferred instruments of repressive governments to silence criticism and stifle public debate."

The Kansas case also appears to run counter to ARTICLE 19's Principles on Freedom of Expression and Protection of Reputation, which state that criminal defamation laws should be repealed in favour of civil legislation. In November 2000, ARTICLE 19's principles were endorsed by the Free Expression Rapporteurs for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the United Nations, and the Organisation of American States [See IFEX "Communique" #9-48 and http://www.article19.org].


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