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WPFC urges Senate to approve bill decriminalising defamation

(WPFC/IFEX) - In a letter to Senate leader Julio César Cleto Cobos, WPFC welcomes the Chamber of Deputies' approval of a bill that would decriminalize defamation and calls on the Senate to follow suit:

Oct. 29, 2009

His Excellency Julio César Cleto Cobos
President
Senate Chamber
Congreso de la Nación
Buenos Aires, Argentina

Your Excellency:

The World Press Freedom Committee ( http://www.wpfc.org ) - an organization representing 44 press freedom groups from throughout the world - celebrates the approval by the Honorable Chamber of Deputies of Bill No. 1243 reforming the Criminal Code to decriminalize defamation laws and urges the Senate to follow suit as soon as possible.

The bill reforms articles 109, 110, 111, 113 and 117, and eliminates Art. 112 so that defamation offenses are excluded in case of "expressions referring to matters of public interest."

The presidential bill is your country's response to the instructions by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights included in its May 2, 2008 decision about the Kímel vs Argentina case, in which it orders the Argentine State to reform its criminal defamation laws, indicating that, "The Criminal Code is the most restrictive means to establish responsibilities in any illicit behavior ( . . . ) The ample interpretation of libel and calumny may attempt against the principle of minimum intervention and the ultima ratio concept in criminal law."

The court sentence also stated that, "Opinions shall not be subject to sanctions, especially when the matter at hand is an opinion about the performance of a public official."

This decision constitutes a historical landmark in the Western Hemisphere's press freedom jurisprudence and the vindication for the victim of this case, journalist Eduardo Kímel.

It all started in 1991 when he published his book "The San Patricio Massacre," a detailed account of the murders of three priests and two seminary students in Belgrano, Argentina, in 1976, during the military dictatorship. The perpetrators of the crimes are still at large, and Mr. Kímel's investigation concluded that the judge assigned to the case, Guillermo Rivarola, was negligent in his ruling because it was obvious that the order to murder the five came from the core of the military junta.

Judge Rivarola later pressed defamation charges against Mr. Kímel, who was sentenced to one year in prison and to pay a $20,000 fine. After a long legal battle in Argentina, the case ended up before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2001. Upon the recommendation of the Commission and the Organization of American States' Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, the Court accepted the case in 2007.

We must underline, however, our misgivings about some parts of the version passed by the Chamber of Deputies. The reformed Art. 111 preserves the antiquated legal concept that imposes the burden of the proof on the defendant. Also, the exclusion of "expressions referring to matters of public interest" leaves the door open to potential plaintiffs willing to challenge the public scope of any matter.

In any instance, the Bill breaks with the status quo that has kept expressions about public matters in the Criminal Code as a Damocles sword dangling over the heads of Argentine journalists, who still risk their assets and even their freedom just by fulfilling their obligation to keep the public informed.

Again, we reiterate our call to approve this historic reform so that Argentina gives a resounding democratic example and joins the other three Latin American nations that have decriminalized their defamation laws: El Salvador, Mexico and, more recently, Uruguay.

Respectfully,
Richard N. Winfield
Chairman,
World Press Freedom Committee

Javier Sierra
Projects Director,
World Press Freedom Committee


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His Excellency Julio César Cleto Cobos
President
Senate Chamber
Congreso de la Nación
Buenos Aires, Argentina
E-mail: [email protected]

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