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GOVERNMENT TIGHTENS "DESACATO" LAWS

Across Latin America, a growing number of governments are repealing so-called "disrespect" ("desacato") laws that unfairly protect officials from public scrutiny and criticism. In Venezuela, however, the government is moving in the opposite direction, approving amendments to the country's Criminal Code that press freedom groups warn may further restrict the public's ability to monitor government actions.

Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, RSF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have expressed concern over the amended Criminal Code, which took effect on 16 March 2005.

The amendments extend the scope of existing provisions that make it a criminal offence to insult or show disrespect for the president and other government authorities, says Human Rights Watch. Currently, the president, vice-president, government ministers, state governors and Supreme Court judges are protected from disrespect under the law. The amendments extend protection to more government officials, including the attorney general, National Assembly legislators and senior military leaders. Anyone convicted of "disrespecting" these officials can be jailed for up to 20 months.

Other amendments increase the penalties for defamation and libel, notes Human Rights Watch. Penalties for defamation have been increased from a maximum of 30 months of imprisonment to a new maximum of four years if the statement is made in a document distributed to the public.

Those convicted would also have to pay a fine of up to 2,000 tax units (currently equivalent to more than US$27,000). The penalty for libel increases from a maximum jail term of three months to a new maximum of two years.

The Criminal Code amendments contravene international standards on freedom of expression, says the Organization of American States' Special Rapporteur on Free Expression, Eduardo Bertoni. The human rights expert says the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the human rights wing of the OAS, considers "desacato" laws to be incompatible with the American Convention on Human Rights. Venezuela is a signatory to the Convention.

"Desacato laws provide greater protection to government officials than to private citizens, in direct violation of the fundamental principle of a democratic system that subjects the government to controls, such as public scrutiny, to prevent and control abuses of its coercive powers," says Bertoni.

In recent years, Argentina, Costa Rica, Paraguay and Peru have repealed "desacato" laws, while Chile and Panama are considering legislation to do so.

Visit:

- Human Rights Watch: http://www.hrw.org/english/docs/2005/03/24/venezu10368.htm
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=12973
- CPJ: http://www.cpj.org/defamation/defamation.html
- OAS Rapporteur on Free Expression: http://www.cidh.org/Relatoria/showarticle.asp?artID=402&lID=1
- American Convention on Human Rights: http://www.cidh.org/Relatoria/showarticle.asp?artID=25&lID=1
- IACHR Declaration of Principles on Free Expression: http://www.cidh.oas.org/Basicos/principles.htm

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