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Senate debates tougher penalties for online press offences as Chamber of Deputies seeks decriminalisation

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders has condemned as dangerous a law proposed by a senator to increase by one third prison sentences for press offences (defamation, insults and denigration) committed on the Internet.

The bill, submitted in December 2007 by Senator Expedito Júnior, is currently being debated by the relevant committee of the upper chamber and it is expected to be put to a vote in February.

"How can you explain the submission of a draft law toughening legal sanctions against press offences in the Senate when another before the Chamber of Deputies provides on the contrary for the abolition of prison sentences for the same offences?" asked the worldwide press freedom organisation. "This proposal is dangerous and completely ill-timed. How can the Congress vote for something and its opposite?"

The criminal law reform introduced by the senator increases by one third prison sentences currently in effect for the offence of "denigration" (including those, under the new law, of six months to two years in prison, as well as a fine) of "defamation" (between three months and one year) and "insult" (between one year and six months), when committed online.

The current law provides for a longer sentence when the victim is elderly or handicapped, is a member of a national or foreign government or holds a public position. Senator Expedito Júnior's law would allow police access to confidential information on a website without legal authority.

In the eyes of the senator, "Anyone who makes accusations without identifying themselves deserves greater punishment". He said it would tackle the proliferation of websites created by "pseudo-journalists" with the sole aim of "causing offence and destroying reputations".

The criminal law reform has to be approved by the Senate committee on science, technology, innovation, communications and computerisation, by which it is now being examined. It would then be submitted for Senate approval in full session. The debate and the vote should be held during February. It would only become law with the assent of the president's Constitution and Justice Committee.

At the same time as Expedito Júnior presented his draft law to the Senate, in December 2007, the deputy Miro Teixeira submitted his to the lower chamber. No timetable has yet been agreed to for this bill, which would put an end to the application of the press law of 9 February 1967 - inherited from the military dictatorship - by abolishing prison sentences for these very same kinds of "damage to reputation" and widening the definition of a journalist to anyone doing the job of informing the public, including online.

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