In Guatemala, a welcome decision to strike down ‘disrespect’ laws

New York, February 3, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists praises a decision by Guatemala’s highest court to strike down laws that criminalized expressions deemed offensive to public officials. The court ruled that desacato, or disrespect, provisions were unconstitutional and constituted “an attack on freedom of expression and the right to be informed.”

In a ruling issued Wednesday, the Constitutionality Court voided articles 411, 412, and 413 of the penal code, which called for prison terms of six months to three years for those who offend government or other public officials.

The court ruled on a June 2005 petition brought by Mario Fuentes Destarac, president of the Guatemalan Chamber of Journalism, who challenged the constitutionality of the provisions. Two weeks after Destarac filed his appeal, the court suspended enforcement of the provisions until a final ruling was issued.

“Public officials, because of their role, are subject to a greater public scrutiny from society, so the laws that criminalize expressions deemed offensive are an attack on freedom of expression and the right to be informed,” the court said in its ruling. The court found that desacato provisions “can cause self-censorship over issues in which critical expressions are required to encourage the corresponding scrutiny of the public office.”

The decision both endorses and supplements the growing body of international legal opinion that public officials should not enjoy protection from scrutiny. In explaining its decision, the Guatemala court cited principles established in the Guatemalan Constitution, the American Convention on Human Rights, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression.

“We’re gratified by the high court’s decision, which is a very important and positive step for press freedom in Guatemala,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “This sets another precedent for the region and reinforces the growing consensus that the law should not shield public officials from public scrutiny.”

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, approved in October 2000, said that “public officials are subject to greater scrutiny by society. Laws that penalize offensive expressions directed at public officials, generally known as ‘desacato laws,’ restrict freedom of expression and the right to information.”

The Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights said that critics of public officials must have “leeway in order for ample debate to take place on matters of public interest” in an August 2004 ruling that overturned the criminal defamation conviction of Costa Rican journalist Mauricio Herrera Ulloa.