New York, June 13, 2000 —– Prominent journalists, lawyers, and academics from throughout the Americas, who gathered June 8-9 in Buenos Aires, Argentina at a conference hosted by CPJ and the Argentine press group Periodistas, called for the repeal of criminal-defamation laws and affirmed that journalists should never be “criminally prosecuted for what they publish, transmit, or express.”
In the “Buenos Aires Declaration,” adopted on June 9, the conference participants promised to defend journalists who are being criminally prosecuted for their work; expressed their support for the work of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR); and applauded the government of Argentina’s efforts to decriminalize defamation in the case of public officials.
The two-day conference brought together journalists and legal experts from throughout the Americas, including representatives from the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), Human Rights Watch/Americas, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States.
“Political leaders and government officials in the Americas are hardly unique in believing that they need [criminal defamation] laws to protect themselves from criticism…,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said in her opening remarks. “But we think it is important to start here, in the Americas, because we think this is where journalists can make the first crucial progress toward the elimination of these laws.”
In fact, according to a study prepared by the IAPA, many countries in Latin America have laws on the books that impose long jail sentences for “insulting” public officials and others. Most statutes do not allow truth as a defense; most provide a higher level of protection for public officials than private citizens; and most such laws make no allowance for inadvertent errors made while reporting in good faith. Journalists and lawyers at the conference described in detail how such laws are used in many countries to intimidate and harass journalists who criticize public officials.
One country that has made an effort to reform these anachronistic laws is Argentina, which repealed its insult, or “desacato,” law in 1993. Horacio Verbitsky, the vice-president of the Argentine press group Periodistas, which co-hosted the conference, has worked with Argentine legislators on a bill that would decriminalize libel in the case of public officials. Speaking at the conference, Argentine Minister of Justice Ricardo Gil Lavedra offered support for the proposed legislation, noting that “the protection of information related to the public interest represents a great responsibility for the state.”
The proposed Argentine bill would adopt the actual malice standard that was first articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1964 case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. Under this standard, plaintiffs must prove not only that the published information is false, but also that the journalist who published it knew or should have known it was false at the time of publication.
The Buenos Aires Declaration also expressed support for the work of the IACHR Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Santiago Canton. In his annual report on the state of press freedom in the Americas, presented last month in Washington, D.C., Canton argued that laws penalizing expression directed at public officials are incompatible with the American Convention on Human Rights.
The conference was financed by The Tinker Foundation, as part of its support for CPJ’s campaign to eliminate criminal defamation in the Americas.