Congress repeals “disrespect” statute

New York, April 20, 2001 — The Chilean Senate repealed several provisions of the country’s infamous State Security Law, including one (Article 6b) that makes it a crime against public order to insult high officials.

First proposed eight years ago, the new “Law on Freedoms of Opinion and Information and the Practice of Journalism,” known as the “Press Law,” passed the Chamber of Deputies on April 10. The Senate approved the bill on April 18.

After review by the Constitutional Tribunal, President Ricardo Lagos must sign the bill for it to become law. The president is expected to do so next week.

Besides Article 6b, local sources say, the bill repeals several other articles of the 1958 State Security Law, including Article 16, which authorizes the suspension of publications and broadcasts, as well as the immediate confiscation of publications deemed offensive, and Article 17, which extends criminal liability to the editors and printers of the offending publication.

Under the new law, civilian courts, not military courts, would hear defamation cases brought against civilians by members of the military.

In addition, the legislation repeals the 1967 Law on Publicity Abuses, under which judges may ban press coverage of court proceedings. The bill also guarantees the right to professional confidentiality and the protection of sources.

Unfortunately, the bill does not remove all “disrespect” (desacato) provisions from Chile’s legal system. The Penal Code, for instance, contains several articles that make it a crime to insult public officials. Chilean law also imposes criminal liability for libel and slander.

Even so, the repeal of Article 6b is a significant improvement. The Penal Code’s “disrespect” provisions give defendants more legal protection than Article 6b, according to Chilean lawyers interviewed by CPJ.

“While we are encouraged by the new Press Law, CPJ believes that journalists should never be jailed for their work, and that public officials should not be allowed to shield themselves from criticism by wielding criminal defamation statutes,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “We urge Chilean legislators to take this victory for press freedom further by eliminating all forms of criminal defamation from the legal system.”

The bill was passed shortly after the 111th session of the Washington-based IACHR, held in Santiago de Chile at the request of the Chilean government.

During the session, IACHR representatives met with Chilean officials to express their concerns about the State Security Law and other legal restrictions on freedom of expression in the country.

Local media also credit President Lagos with reviving the bill by returning an earlier version of the bill to Congress with amendments aimed at achieving consensus on the most controversial items.

Vindication for Matus?
If the new bill becomes law, all pending “disrespect” cases filed under Article 6b of the State Security Law will become void, which would allow exiled Chilean journalist Alejandra Matus to return to Chile without risking detention.

Matus faces criminal defamation charges in Chile stemming from the April 1999 publication of The Black Book of Chilean Justice, her muckraking investigation of the Chilean judiciary. Her case began on April 14, 1999, when Santiago Appeals Court judge Rafael Huerta banned her book one day after it was published. The ban was imposed in response to a suit filed by Supreme Court justice Servando Jordán under Article 6b of the State Security Law.

On March 23, 2001, CPJ submitted an amicus curiae brief to the IACHR in the Matus case, arguing that “public order” is threatened, not promoted, by the criminalization of defamation and that government officials should have no special protection from criticism.

The brief, which was prepared by the New York firm of Debevoise & Plimpton on behalf of CPJ, specifically recommended the repeal of Article 6b. [Read the CPJ brief]