In Mexico, landmark libel bill awaits Calderón’s signature

New York, March 7, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists today urged Mexican President Felipe Calderón to sign new federal legislation decriminalizing defamation, libel, and slander. Voting 100-0 with one abstention, the Mexican Senate passed a bill on Tuesday that effectively directs all such cases to civil court. The measure, already approved by the lower chamber of Congress, seeks to make Mexican law conform to emerging regional and international standards, lawmakers said.

“The Senate’s approval of these important reforms marks a significant step forward for journalists in Mexico, who havebeen harassed and jailed under outdated laws for too long,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We call on President Calderón to take the next step by promptly signing this landmark bill.”

The bill repeals articles 350 through 363 of the federal penal code. If signed by the president, journalists would no longer face prison sentences at the federal level for defamation, libel, and slander.

The reforms would make defamation, libel, and slander civil offenses under new articles 1916 and 1916bis of the federal civil code. Such offenses will be subject to monetary damages and corrections of the erroneous material “in the same media where it was published and with the same space and the same circulation or audience to which the original information was directed.”

Calderón has not publicly commented on the legislation, but he has spoken in general terms about improving press freedom conditions in Mexico. His party, the National Action Party or PAN, supported the bill. The law would become official following Calderón’s signature and its publication in the Official Journal of the Federation. If the president vetoes the bill, he could return it to Congress with comments.

If signed into law, the reforms would not offer complete protection from criminal defamation complaints because many states continue to carry criminal libel laws on their books. Mexico’s legal system operates on separate state and federal levels; federal laws do not supercede state laws. In most Mexican states, defamation, libel, and slander are still punishable by prison sentences of up to four years.

“We urge state governments to follow the lead of the Mexican senate, decriminalize press laws, and ensure that journalists throughout the country can work without the fear of legal prosecution,” added Simon. Lawmakers in the states of San Luis Potossí and Durango are now considering repeal.

Though imprisonment for press offenses has fallen into disuse in the Americas, prosecution on criminal defamation charges remains common. But a landmark 2004 ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has led a number of politicians in the region to consider reforms that would wipe libel entirely from the criminal law books.

In the 2004 case, the Inter-American Court overturned the 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 conviction violated the reporter’s right to free expression, and it ordered the Costa Rican government to pay damages. The court’s president, Judge Sergio García Ramírez, wrote a separate, concurring opinion questioning the very basis for criminal defamation and suggesting that such laws be repealed.