Columnist arrested and accused of contempt

New York, February 6, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is outraged by the imprisonment of a Mexican reporter. Angel Mario Ksheratto columnist for the daily Cuarto Poder in the southern state of Chiapas, was detained on Saturday and accused of contempt after missing a court date in connection with a criminal defamation complaint filed against him for reporting on government corruption.

Ksheratto was arrested on Saturday morning by state police and jailed in El Amate, a maximum security prison in the town of Cintalapa, the Mexican press said. He was still being held Monday.

The columnist is required to appear every week before a local judge in connection with a 2003 criminal defamation complaint. Ksheratto must travel 65 miles (120 kilometers) from his base in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the state capital, to sign a court record while the defamation charges are pending, the daily La Jornada reported.

“In prosecuting journalists for doing their jobs, Chiapas state authorities are out of step with the rest of Mexico and the region, both of which are moving to eliminate these laws,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “We are dismayed by the imprisonment of our colleague and call for his immediate release.”

The case stems from two articles published by Ksheratto in August 2002 into alleged irregularities in a state-run agency responsible for the construction of schools. The columnist alleged that a local public official had used state money to build her house. The official filed a criminal defamation lawsuit and Ksheratto was arrested on January 9, 2003. He was released on bail the next day.

Unlike many other places in Latin America, the state of Chiapas has moved to stiffen criminal defamation laws. In February 2004, the Chiapas state congress unanimously approved amendments to Articles 164, 169, and 173 of the state’s penal code, drastically increasing penalties for defamation. Articles 164 and 169 raised minimum penalties for defamation and libel from two to three years and maximum penalties from five to nine years. In addition, the amended articles make defamation and libel felonies and impose heavier fines. These changes are not likely to apply in the Ksheratto case, but they have sparked concern among journalists.

The changes were especially pernicious because they reclassified defamation as a felony. Because the penalties for criminal defamation have been increased so severely, journalists who are convicted and sentenced to more than four years in prison can’t have their sentences suspended or commuted to probation.

Laws that criminalize speech that does not incite lawless violence are incompatible with the right to freedom of expression as established under Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights, which Mexico has ratified. As the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) stated in 1994, “Considering the consequences of criminal sanctions and the inevitable chilling effect they have on freedom of expression, criminalization of speech can only apply in those exceptional circumstances when there is an obvious and direct threat of lawless violence.”

Though imprisonment for press offenses has fallen into disuse in the Americas, prosecution on criminal defamation charges remains common. In August 2004, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights announced a ruling overturning the 1999 criminal defamation conviction of Costa Rican journalist Mauricio Herrera Ulloa, a reporter with the daily La Nación. The Costa Rica-based court ruled that the sentence violated his right to freedom of expression and ordered Costa Rica to pay damages to him. The court’s president, Judge Sergio García Ramírez, wrote a separate, concurring opinion questioning the criminalization of defamation and suggesting that such laws be repealed.