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Guatemala3 February 2006

In victory for press freedom, court decriminalizes insulting an official

Reporters Without Borders today hailed the Guatemalan constitutional court’s decision to quash articles 411 and 412 of the criminal code, under which an insult or slur on a government official was a crime punishable by imprisonment.

“These two articles posed an obvious constraint on press freedom and free expression,” Reporters Without Borders said. “This decision reaffirms the Guatemalan constitution’s democratic principles and establishes a liberal legislative framework for the press.”

The constitutional court ruled on 1 February that articles 411 and 412 were unconstitutional and should be struck from the criminal code. The ruling was approved by five votes to two, with justices Cipriano Soto Tobar and Mario Ruiz Wong voting against.

The court issued its decision in response to a petition filed on 31 May 2005 by Mario Fuentes Destarac, the head of the Guatemalan Chamber of Journalists and vice-president of the El Periódico daily newspaper, claiming that articles 411, 412 and 413 were unconstitutional.

Under these three articles, a show of disrespect or attack on the honour of the president of the one of the organs of the state while in office is punishable by one to three years in prison, while a show of disrespect or attack on the honour of a public official or civil servant is punishable by six months to two years in prison.

Article 35 of the 1993 constitution says free expression must be guaranteed by the state and may under no circumstances be limited by a law or any other government provision. In his petition, Destarac said the implementation of these three articles seriously impeded the exercise of the rights to press freedom and free speech.

Welcoming the court’s verdict, Destarac said: “This is unquestionably a victory, and has freed journalists from a threat permanently hanging over them.”

Guatemala is the sixth Latin American country to decriminalize insulting a government official, following Honduras, Costa Rica, Peru, Argentina and Paraguay.

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