Inter-American court urges Argentina to reform defamation laws

New York, May 22, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists hails a new ruling from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that urges Argentina to void a criminal defamation sentence against a local journalist and reform its defamations laws.

The decision by the international court, based in San José, Costa Rica’s capital, was made public on Tuesday by the Argentine human rights organization Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS), which represented the reporter before the court. The ruling was dated May 2. The court is an arm of the Organization of American States (OAS) and its decisions are binding on member states.

The court urged Argentina to void the 1999 criminal defamation conviction of journalist and author Eduardo Kimel, saying the state “violated his right to freedom of expression,” according to the decision reviewed by CPJ.

The court also called on the state to pay Kimel US$10,000 in damages, to recognize its responsibility in a public act, and to modify its defamation laws to avoid future violations of free expression.

“We are gratified by the court’s decision, which is an important step forward for freedom of expression in Argentina. The ruling sets another precedent for the campaign to decriminalize defamation in the Americas,” said Carlos Lauría, senior program coordinator for CPJ’s Americas Program. “The government of President Cristina Kirchner should take steps now to comply with the ruling and reform its defamation laws to eliminate criminal penalties.”

Kimel, who works for the official news agency Télam, was given a one-year suspended prison sentence by the Argentine Supreme Court. The charges stemmed from a 1989 book by Kimel, La Masacre de San Patricio (The San Patricio Massacre), in which he criticized Judge Guillermo Rivarola’s investigation into the 1976 slaying of five Palatine priests during the military dictatorship. Rivarola filed a complaint alleging that the book libeled, slandered, and dishonored him. In addition to the suspended term, the high court ordered Kimel to pay 20,000 pesos (US$20,000) in damages.
After exhausting internal legal avenues, CELS and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), an international human rights group, submitted the case to the Washington D.C.-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The commission, the OAS human rights arm, found cause to pass the case on to the court in 2006.

In an August 2007 hearing before the court, Argentine officials acknowledged that Kimel’s right of free expression had been violated and pledged to adopt legislation in accordance with the American Convention on Human Rights, which Argentina ratified in 1984.     

The decision both endorses and supplements the growing body of international legal opinion that public officials should not enjoy protection from scrutiny. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights 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.”

In April 2007, Mexican President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa signed a bill that effectively eliminated libel and slander at the federal level, directing such complaints to the civil courts. Mexico joined El Salvador as the first countries in Latin America to repeal defamation as a criminal offense.

In August 2004, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights overturned the 1999 criminal defamation conviction of Costa Rican journalist Mauricio Herrera Ulloa, a reporter with the daily La Nación. The court ruled that the verdict violated the right to free expression and ordered Costa Rica to pay damages to the reporter. 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.