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United States23 July 2002

Two journalists risk jail for criminel libel

Reporters Without Borders strongly protested today at the conviction of two Kansas journalists for criminal libel and urged that they not be sent to prison for what they wrote.

"Jailing journalists for libel is an attack on the free flow of information guaranteed by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ratified by the United States," said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard in a letter to US attorney-general John Ashcroft.

"The excessive nature of the punishment for such an offence has the effect of inhibiting journalists and infringing their right to inform the public and the public’s right to be informed," he said, recalling the January 2000 ruling of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Information that imprisonment in such cases is a "serious violation of human rights." The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights says laws criminalising defamation of public officials are an attack on freedom of expression.

The two journalists, David Carson (publisher) and Ed Powers (editor), of the free monthly newspaper The New Observer, were convicted on 17 July for writing that Carol Marinovich, mayor of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County (Kansas City) and her husband Ernest Johnson, the county’s district court judge, did not live in the county as required by law, but in a neighbouring one. They risk being sent to prison for a year.

Special Prosecutor David Ferris has not yet decided whether to ask for a prison sentence. Defence lawyer Mark Birmingham said he would appeal if the judge did not set aside the verdict. Sentencing has been set for 26 August.

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