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Colombia Supreme Court urged to overturn defamation verdict

(IPI/IFEX) - VIENNA, Oct 24, 2012 - The Colombian Supreme Court should overturn the conviction of journalist Luis Agustín González on insult charges, the International Press Institute (IPI) said today.

In arguments before the Court earlier this week, representatives for Colombia's attorney general and general prosecutor urged justices to reverse the verdict, warning of potential “damage from limiting the right to free expression,” reports said.

González, editor of the regional newspaper Cundinamarca Democrática, had been sentenced to 20 months in prison in September 2011 by a municipal judge in Fusagasuga, just outside of Bogotá, for criminal insult and libel after publishing an article critical of a former governor and senator, Leonor Serrano de Camargo. In February, the Superior Court of Cundinamarca overturned the libel conviction but upheld the insult verdict, and modified the prison term to 18 months and 18 days, IPI earlier reported.

Government representatives disputed the lower courts' contention that the accusations made by González in the article, a 2008 column entitled “No Más!” (No More!), in which the journalist referred to Serrano de Camargo as a “political intriguer” who had ruled the province through “arrogance” and “despotism”, constituted injuria or “criminal insult,” referring to them instead as an expression of “disapproval.”

“The point is that [Serrano de Camargo] was a public official, making her subject to a level of criticism from public opinion,” the attorney general's representative asserted, though she added that, in the government's view, Serrano de Camargo's position did not make criminal insult against her permissible in general.

Arguing against the government's motion, a lawyer for the former governor told the Court his client's honour had been “gravely affected” by González's accusations.

IPI Deputy Director Anthony Mills said: “We urge the Colombian Supreme Court to reverse the conviction for criminal insult against Luis Agustín González. The notion that public officials should be shielded from criticism by insult laws represents a serious threat to press freedom and transparency in Colombia.”

Mills added: “We welcome the Colombian government's apparent attempt to defend press freedom in Gonzalez's case. Nevertheless, it is vital that the government seriously consider the abolition of all criminal defamation and insult laws, in line with recommendations expressed by the OAS Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, Catalina Botero, as well as local and international press freedom groups.”

In August, the Court announced it would file criminal libel and slander charges against two journalists who had criticised it in separate columns. The justices later backtracked after an international outcry, IPI reported.

Last week, IPI released a final report on its advocacy mission for the repeal of criminal defamation and insult laws in the Caribbean. On Thursday, IPI announced that Grenada had become the first Caribbean nation to repeal criminal defamation.

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