The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based nonprofit organization that works to safeguard press freedom worldwide, condemns Chiapas' recent enactment of penal code reforms that impose severe criminal penalties for defamation.
On Feb. 17, the 40 parliamentary deputies of the Chiapas state congress unanimously approved amendments to Articles 164, 169, and 173 of the state's penal code. The amendments were published in the state's official journal on Feb. 25 and entered into effect on May 26.
Articles 164 and 169 in their most recent versions raise minimum penalties for the crimes of defamation and libel from two to three years and maximum penalties from five to nine years. In addition, the amended articles make defamation and libel felonies and impose heavier fines.
Laws that criminalize speech that does not incite lawless violence are incompatible with the right to freedom of expression as established under Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights, which Mexico has ratified. As the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) stated in 1994, "Considering the consequences of criminal sanctions and the inevitable chilling effect they have on freedom of expression, criminalization of speech can only apply in those exceptional circumstances when there is an obvious and direct threat of lawless violence."
More recently, the IACHR's Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, approved in October 2000, reaffirmed that "the protection of a person's reputation should only be guaranteed through civil sanctions in those cases in which the person offended is a public official, a public person, or a private person who has voluntarily become involved in matters of public interest."
Several local and regional organizations have protested the reforms. In early June, with legal help from the Mexico City-based access to information group Libertad de Información-México A.C., journalists in Chiapas filed suits in a federal district court in the state capital, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, that challenged the constitutionality of the penal code reforms.
We reject all criminal penalties for defamation, but these reforms are especially pernicious because they reclassify defamation as a felony. Because of this change, journalists who are tried for defamation will no longer be able to be released on bail while criminal proceedings are pending. Because the penalties for criminal defamation have been increased so drastically, journalists who are convicted and sentenced to more than four years in prison will no longer be able to have their sentences suspended or commuted to probation.
Likewise, new provisions added to Article 173 hold media owners, managers, and publishers liable for defamation and libel if the author of an article is unknown or if he or she lives outside the state.
We are dismayed that you supported the penal code reforms and that they were approved with little discussion. According to local news reports, you rejected attempts to delay the enforcement of the new provisions and have claimed that the reforms guarantee the free dissemination of ideas.
Although a consensus has emerged in the Western Hemisphere that defamation should be decriminalized, Chiapas has moved in the opposite direction. The toughening of criminal defamation provisions constitutes a setback for freedom of expression in Chiapas, and in Mexico as a whole. We urge you to support the repeal of the approved criminal defamation provisions and to consider backing new legislation that falls into line with international freedom of expression standards.
Ann K. Cooper