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Abolish criminal defamation provisions, Human Rights Watch urges as freelancer goes on trial

Libel charges against journalist undermine free speech

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Washington, DC, January 13, 2010 - Chile should not use criminal libel laws to prevent individuals, in particular journalists, from fulfilling their role in disseminating information on matters of serious public concern, Human Rights Watch said today.

Pascale Bonnefoy, a freelance reporter, will go on trial for libel on January 14, 2010, facing criminal charges for an article that named a retired military officer as the man responsible for terrorizing thousands of political prisoners during the Pinochet regime, citing the reports of witnesses. She faces up to 10 years in prison if found guilty.

"It is unacceptable that a journalist who published information of public interest regarding the darkest period of recent Chilean history should face the prospect of a trial, far less imprisonment," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "Public figures in particular should expect to be open to criticism and debate that may offend or call into question their reputation without resort to criminal law."

In May 2006, an article by Bonnefoy was published in Chilean and international papers stating that several witnesses, including military officers and political prisoners, identified a former Army lieutenant, Edwin Dimter, as "The Prince," a man who terrorized thousands of political prisoners in the Chile Stadium after the military coup of September 11, 1973. The article said "The Prince" had beaten and tormented the political prisoners and allegedly ordered the murder of one of them.

Dimter pressed criminal charges against Bonnefoy for libel in June 2006. Chilean law imposes criminal penalties for "falsely attributing a crime to an individual if the crime should be investigated by authorities" and for issuing "an expression that causes another individual to be dishonored, discredited, or viewed with contempt." Bonnefoy's trial starts on January 14.

"Not only is this prosecution incompatible with Chile's international human rights obligations, but it may also generate a chilling effect that severely undermines freedom of expression in the country," Vivanco said.

International human rights bodies have long criticized the use of criminal defamation for allegations involving public officials in the interest of promoting the vibrant public debate necessary in a democratic society. The Principles on Freedom of Expression adopted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2000 assert that protection of the reputation of public officials should be guaranteed only by civil sanctions.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has recently held that the use of criminal proceedings for defamation must be limited to cases of "extreme gravity" as a "truly exceptional measure" where its "absolute necessity" has been demonstrated, and that in any such case the burden of proof must rest with the accuser.

Click here for more Human Rights Watch reporting on Chile

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