Honduran high court strikes down desacato provision

New York, May 26, 2005—The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes a new ruling by the Honduran Supreme Court of Justice that strikes down the desacato, or contempt, provision in the country’s Penal Code.

The Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber ruled on May 19 that Article 345 of the Penal Code was unconstitutional because it provided “special protection” to public officials and restricted freedom of expression. The ruling repealed the provision, effective immediately.

Article 345 contained the desacato provision, which criminalizes expressions that offend public officials and state institutions. “The privilege established under Article 345 of the Penal Code is an impediment to public criticism and discussion,” the ruling said.

To support its decision, the Supreme Court cited a 1994 report from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The report recommended the repeal of desacato laws, arguing that they contravene the American Convention on Human Rights because they suppress freedom of expression.

The court ruling also cited IACHR’s Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, approved in October 2000, which states that desacato laws “restrict freedom of expression and the right to information.”

“We are very encouraged by this ruling, which improves the climate for press freedom in Honduras and sets an example for the region,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said.

The court’s decision represents a victory for international and domestic press freedom organizations. IACHR’s special rapporteur for freedom of expression, Eduardo Bertoni, visited Honduras in September 2003 and May 2004 to document press conditions in Honduras. Invited by the Honduran government at the urging of the local press freedom group, Comité por la Libre Expresión (C-Libre), Bertoni urged the government to eliminate desacato laws.

On October 24, 2003, following Bertoni’s first visit, then-Attorney General Roy Edmundo Medina filed an appeal with the Supreme Court contending that the desacato provision violates Articles 60 and 72 of the Honduran Constitution. Article 60 declares that all Hondurans are equal before the law, while Article 72 establishes that “the dissemination of thought through any medium of communication is free and not subject to prior censorship.”

Article 345 of the Penal Code prescribed two to four years’ imprisonment for anyone who “threatens, defames, slanders, insults or in any other way offends the dignity of a public authority as a result of his functions, whether it is done verbally or in writing.” If the offensive expression was aimed at the president, ministers, parliamentary deputies, or Supreme Court justices, the penalty was three to six years in prison.