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WPFC concerned about flaws in reformed defamation law

(WPFC/IFEX) - The following is a 24 April 2007 WPFC letter to the president of Mexico:

April 24, 2007

His Excellency Felipe de Jesús Calderón Hinojosa
President of the Republic
Official Residence of Los Pinos
Col. San Miguel Chapultepec, C.P. 11850
Distrito Federal, Mexico

Your Excellency:

On behalf of the World Press Freedom Committee ( http://www.wpfc.org ) - an organization representing 45 press freedom groups from five continents - I wish to congratulate you for signing into law a historic reform that restricts defamation, slander and libel to the civil code.

This way, Mexico has become only the second nation in Latin America and the Caribbean to decriminalize these laws, following the example of El Salvador. The rest of the Western Hemisphere's countries, with the only exception of Canada, still keep these laws in their criminal codes including prison sentences.

As you correctly stated during the signing ceremony, "Thanks to this reform, journalists will be able to do their jobs without fear of being imprisoned because of legal actions taken by those who may consider themselves aggrieved by their reporting or writing."

The new articles in the Civil Code, 1916 and 1916 bis, limit the punishment that can be handed down because of these claims to the payment of fines and other measures, such as the publication of corrections in the media.

The decision, nevertheless, leaves journalists vulnerable to being sued for criminal defamation in state courts, which, with the only exception of the Federal District, do consider these infractions criminal. As a matter of fact, some Mexican states still possess some of the most stringent and restrictive criminal defamations laws in the entire region. We therefore strongly recommend that the Office of the President introduce a constitutional reform that would bestow superseding authority on this new law, which constitutes a great advance for good governance and transparency in Mexican institutions.

Moreover, we see a second flaw in this law in the following clause: "Anyone who publishes accusations against another person or legal entity about a deed that can be either truthful or false, determined or undetermined, that can cause injury to the honor, credit or good name of another person and that can expose him to the disdain of others." This inappropriately charges the defendant with the burden of proof of his innocence and, furthermore, excludes any "truthful expressions" as a justification for the publication of that information.

Therefore, our Committee urges Your Excellency and the Mexican Congress to keep these flaws very much in mind and to correct them as soon as possible in the near future.

We must clearly state, however, that we support this singular initiative that should lead the way for other countries in the region to decriminalize these offences. Until that happens, any journalist working in any of those countries still risks imprisonment simply because he or she would choose to fulfil his or her duty to keep the public informed.

Respectfully,

E. Markham Bench
Executive Director
World Press Freedom Committee

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