Argentina set to repeal criminal defamation law

New York, December 14, 1999 ­ Argentina seems likely to become the first Latin American country in which journalists cannot be jailed for criticizing public officials. In the course of next week, an Argentine senate commission is expected to approve a bill decriminalizing libel and defamation.

“This will affirm the press freedom that Argentine journalists have been using for the last two decades to investigate the government and denounce corruption,” predicted Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitksy, who helped push through the legislation. Verbitsky, vice president of the Argentine press freedom group Periodistas, was often prosecuted by former President Carlos Menem and his ministers because of his investigative reporting.

On October 1, Verbitsky argued before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights in Washington that Argentina’s criminal defamation laws violated inter-American law. As part of the settlement in that case, the Argentine government agreed to repeal the offending legislation. (CPJ Deputy Director Joel Simon testified on behalf of Verbitsky in that case).

The new bill also introduces the “real malice” standard, first articulated by the United States Supreme Court in the 1964 case of New York Times v. Sullivan. Once the new bill becomes law in Argentina, plaintiffs in civil libel cases will be required to prove not only that the published information was false, but that the journalists knew or should have known it was false at the time of publication.

Before it becomes law, the new bill must be approved by both houses of Congress and ratified by President Fernando de la Rua, a process that could still take several months. The law would apply only to public officials and public figures who have “knowingly involved themselves in issues of public interest.” Private individuals would still be entitled to seek criminal penalties against journalists in libel cases.