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Victory as Federal Supreme Court repeals dictatorship-era press law

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders has saluted as a "great victory for press freedom" the historic decision of the Federal Supreme Court (STF) to repeal the entire 1967 press law that had allowed prison sentences to be handed down to journalists for what they wrote.

The worldwide press freedom organisation said the decision was even more welcome coming as it did just before World Press Freedom Day on 3 May.

The country's highest jurisdiction voted on 30 April 2009 by seven votes to four to sweep away the repressive law which had been adopted under the 1964-1985 military dictatorship.

Federal deputy Miro Teixeira was behind the 2007 call on the STF to revoke the 9 February 1967 law that provided for prison sentences for press offences. The court had on 27 February 2008 suspended on an initial six-month basis - that was extended the following September - the application of 20 of the 77 articles of the law. These were the most repressive ones relating to "defamation, "insult", and "denigration, all of which meant an increase of sentences already laid down under criminal law.

"The 1967 press law continued to be used for a long time after the return of democracy in 1985 as a means of applying pressure or reprisals against journalists," the press freedom organisation said.

"The 1967 law was also in conflict with the principles enshrined in the 1988 democratic constitution. This judicial absurdity had to be resolved. This law moreover had the avowed intention of gagging the press by increasing sentences laid down under the criminal law for some offences of opinion," it said.

"With the total repeal of this law, the rule of law has now triumphed against the 'dark years', making it a victory for democracy," the organisation concluded.

It was the articles made void by the 1988 Constitution that most fuelled the debate. Some judges on the STF wanted to keep them for use in "protection of private life, and for people's reputation and image". A further legal wrangle centred on the right of reply, which was part of the 1967 law. The judges who backed repealing the entire legislation pointed out that this right was already guaranteed under earlier 1923 legislation and Article 5 of the constitution. Miro Teixeira who set the legal ball rolling had argued that "no law should ever be able to influence the content of news." The dean of the STF judges, Celso de Mello, picked up the same theme at the end of the debate, saying, "Nothing is more harmful and dangerous than the state seeking to regulate freedom of expression and freedom of thought."

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