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Mexico13 April 2007

President enacts law decriminalising press offences

President Felipe Calderón yesterday signed into law the decriminalisation of “defamation”, “insults” and “calumny” by the media and journalists convicted of such offences will now only pay damages instead of being given prison sentences. The law was passed by the federal chamber of deputies on 18 March last year and by the senate on 6 April this year.

“Mexico is the seventh country in the Americas (after Honduras, Costa Rica, Peru, Argentina, Paraguay and Guatemala) to take this step and we hope it will inspire others to do the same,” said Reporters without Borders. Three of Mexico’s 32 states have so far amended their criminal code in line with the new federal law. “The measure must be complied with at all levels in the country,” the press freedom organisation said.

8.03.07 - States urged to bring laws into line after federal parliament decriminalizes press offences

Reporters Without Borders today hailed the decriminalization of “defamation” and “insult” that was passed by the federal senate on 6 March and was already approved by the chamber of deputies on 18 April of last year. However, these offences are still crimes in most Mexican states, which should now conform to the federal legislation, the organisation said.

“This legislation makes Mexico the seventh Latin American country to decriminalize press offences,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It is a significant gesture even if the risks Mexico’s journalists face have little to do with the courts. We hope the government will lose no time in promulgating the new legislation. It now falls to the state assemblies to decriminalize press offences as required by the primacy of federal over local law.”

When it unanimously approved the decriminalization of “defamation” and “insult,” the federal senate said it fell to “civil court judges to decide if persons, journalists and communicators act within or outside the law when they disseminate information or opinions, by eliminating the possibility of a prison sentence of any abuse of freedom of expression.”

These “abuses” will henceforth be punished by fines or the award of damages. “Under no circumstances” are the negative opinions of literary, artistic, historical, scientific or professional critics to be considered “attacks on the honour” of a person or institution as long as there is no “intention to offend,” the senate decided.

In a vote nearly one year ago (see release of 20 April 2006), the federal chamber of deputies adopted a resolution abolishing “prison sentences for those who abuse the freedom of expression, leaving open the possibility for parties to go through the civil courts to sue for the reparation of any moral damage inflicted.”

Six Latin American countries have already decriminalized press offences: Honduras, Costa Rica, Peru, Argentina, Paraguay and Guatemala. After Argentina, Mexico is the second country with a federal system to do it. So far, three of Mexico’s states have amended their criminal law in line with the new federal legislation: Baja California, Jalisco and the Mexico City Federal District.

For the time being, the maximum sentences for defamation continue to be:
-  one year in prison in the states of Guanajuato and Morelos
-  two years in prison in the states of Campeche, Chihuahua, Hidalgo, Nayarit, Querétaro, Quintana Roo, San Luis Potosí, Sinaloa, Sonora, Tamaulipas, Tlaxcala, Yucatán and Zacatecas
-  three years in prison in the states of Aguascalientes, Coahuila, Colima, Durango, Guerrero (except for a state official in the exercise of his duties), México, Michoacán, Nuevo León and Tabasco
-  four years in prison in the states of Baja California Sur, Puebla and Veracruz
-  five years in prison in the state of Oaxaca
-  nine years in prison and the equivalent of nine times the minimum wage in the state of Chiapas.

Last April, the federal chamber of deputies also approved another resolution, one already passed by the senate, guaranteeing certain professions including journalists the right to professional confidentiality. At the moment when the senate approved the decriminalization of press offences, the lower house unanimously passed a proposed constitutional amendment on the fundamental right of access to public information at the federal, state and local level.

Sen. Carlos Sotelo García of the left-wing Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) immediately submitted a bill to the senate that would add professional secrecy, the right of journalists to resign on an issue of conscience, the right of access to public information and the decriminalization of press offences to the federal constitution.

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