CPJ welcomes Calderón’s signature on landmark defamation law

New York, April 13, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes Mexican President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa’s signature on legislation that effectively eliminates criminal defamation, libel, and slander at the federal level, making Mexico the second country in Latin America to repeal defamation as a criminal offense.

“We praise President Calderón for signing this important piece of legislation that effectively repeals criminal defamation,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “This is a crucial step toward protecting freedom of expression in Mexico.”

Calderón signed the bill, which had been passed by the Mexican Senate in March, yesterday afternoon at an official event attended by Mexican media owners, editors and journalists, the Mexican press reported. Calderón praised the legislation as a guarantor of Mexicans’ right to freedom of expression but cautioned that this right “should be exercised with responsibility,” according to local press reports.

The new legislation makes it impossible for a journalist to face prison sentences at the federal level for so-called “honor crimes.” Defamation, libel, and slander are now civil offenses under new articles 1916 and 1916a of the federal civil code. They are subject to monetary damages and corrections of the erroneous material.

This reform, however, does not offer Mexican journalists complete protection from criminal defamation complaints because many Mexican 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.

“While the federal law is ratified by Calderón’s decision, we call on state governments to follow the lead of the federal government and decriminalize press laws to ensure that journalists throughout the country can work without the fear of legal prosecution,” added Simon.

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.

El Salvador is the only other country in Latin America that has eliminated defamation as a criminal offense.