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IAPA condemns conviction of journalist

(IAPA/IFEX) - Miami (May 21, 2009) - The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) today expressed concern at a conviction by a Uruguayan court of another journalist, calling it a direct consequence of the existence of "outdated criminal laws," and urging the legislature to bring its debate on decriminalizing libel and eliminating contempt as a punishable offense to a satisfactory conclusion.

The journalist, Alvaro Alfonso was sentenced by criminal court judge Rolando Vomero on a charge of defamation after Congressman Carlos Tutzó brought him to trial claiming he was offended by what Alfonso had written in his book "Secrets of the Communist Party of Uruguay" published last year.

Alfonso wrote that during the Uruguayan military dictatorship (1973-1985) the current Communist Party leader and member of Congress for Montevideo "collaborated" with the military in the identification of fellow members of his party while he was in prison. Alfonso attributed his information to "military sources" and added that according to what he had learned "doubts have been raised" within the Communist Party of Uruguay (PCU) regarding Tutzó's conduct.

IAPA President Enrique Santos Calderón, editor of the Bogotá Colombia, newspaper El Tiempo, declared, "Apart from the right to have recourse to justice that belongs to every
individual, what concerns us in Uruguay is the repeated application of outdated criminal laws that contradict inter-American case law concerning free speech and press freedom." In Uruguay criminal legislation includes the offenses of defamation, libel and contempt of public officials. A legislative bill seeking to abolish "communication offenses" from the Penal Code was passed in the Senate but remains under debate in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies.

The chairman of the IAPA's Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, Robert Rivard, editor of the San Antonio Express-News, Texas, pointed out that there is already a favorable trend towards elimination of contempt, an issue that is explicitly defined in the Organization of American States' Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, Article 11, which states that "Public officials are subject to greater scrutiny by society. Laws that penalize offensive expressions directed at public officials, generally known as 'desacato (insult) laws,' restrict freedom of expression and the right to information."

In sentencing Alfonso, Judge Vomero said the journalist had accused the current Communist Party leader of "collaborating with the military during the tyranny" and this "was in all ways offensive to the plaintiff" who was subjected "to hate and public scorn." The judge concluded that "it is clear that to attribute an act of disloyalty to a person, almost one of treason, is to offend his honor."

The judge did not sentence Alfonso to prison but ordered that his conviction be added to his "criminal record." Alfonso appealed to a higher court and is now awaiting the outcome.

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