Executive branch pledges to reform criminal defamation laws

New York, May 7, 2002—The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes the Chilean government’s recent pledge to reform Chile’s onerous criminal defamation laws.

On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, government spokesman Heraldo Muñoz announced that the government would present a proposal to the Chamber of Deputies to achieve “the decriminalization of crimes of opinion … and look to modify the concept of disrespect as well as deal with the crimes of libel and slander to take out any reference to freedom of expression and freedom of the press and opinion,” according to a press release.

In 2001, after years of wrangling, the Chilean legislature finally passed a press law repealing some of the country’s most punitive defamation statutes. But the law failed to remove all desacato (disrespect) provisions from Chile’s legal system.

The Penal Code, for instance, contains several articles that make it a crime to insult public officials. Journalists are particularly vulnerable to prosecution under these laws. Eduardo Yáñez, a regular panelist on Chilevisión’s debate show “El Termómetro,” was charged with “disrespect” after he criticized the Supreme Court during a November 27, 2001, broadcast. On January 15, 2002, a judge initiated proceedings against Yáñez and the panelist was detained overnight. He was released on bail but faces up to five years in prison if convicted.

“We commend the Chilean government’s positive step in regard to press freedom,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “CPJ hopes this commitment will result in a legal framework for freedom of expression in Chile that fully complies with international standards.”

The 2001 Law on Freedoms of Opinion and Information and the Practice of Journalism, known as the Press Law, repealed certain provisions of Chile’s infamous State Security Law of 1958, including Article 6b, which made it a crime to insult senior officials.

However, the amended law contains several troubling provisions. Notably, the law limits the definition of who is a journalist to those holding a university degree from an accredited journalism school and to “those whom the law recognizes as such.”

The law establishes the right to the protection of sources but restricts this right to “recognized” journalists, along with journalism students doing an internship, recent journalism graduates, publishers, editors, and foreign correspondents. The law also specifies that government spokespeople and journalists employed by state media outlets must hold journalism degrees.

Finally, the 2001 law repealed the 1967 Law on Publicity Abuses, which empowered judges to ban press coverage of court proceedings. While that was a positive step, the new law also imposed personal privacy protections that could inhibit the ability of journalists to report on the activities of public figures.

In its recent press release, the government said the relationship between freedom of expression and the right to privacy would be addressed in the proposal.