CPJ hails approval of press law by Uruguayan Congress

New York, June 11, 2009–The Committee to Protect Journalists commends the Uruguayan Congress’ approval on Wednesday of a bill that repeals criminal defamation on issues of public interest involving officials. The bill is now under consideration of President Tabaré Vázquez for signing it into law.

The Uruguayan Chamber of Deputies, which is the lower chamber of parliament, passed a bill reforming the country’s press law that had been approved by the Senate in December 2008, according to local news reports. The bill amended Article 336 of the penal code by striking down criminal penalties for defamation on issues of public interest involving officials. The bill affirmed the “actual malice” standard in determining liability in defamation cases involving public officials, said the Uruguayan Press Association (APU).

“We commend the Uruguayan Congress for asserting journalists’ right to scrutinize the conduct of public officials,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ senior program coordinator for the Americas. “We now call on President Vázquez to sign this important bill into law.”

Changes to the press law also include the elimination of a disrespect provision that carried criminal sanctions for those who offended a foreign dignitary or showed disrespect for national emblems. The bill was drafted and sponsored by a coalition of local civil society groups, including APU.   

The reform of Uruguay’s law comes a month after Brazil eliminated an infamous 1967 Press Law that imposed harsh penalties for libel and slander. CPJ described the Brazilian Supreme Federal Tribunal’s decision a crucial step forward in the campaign to eliminate criminal defamation laws in the Americas    

The approval of this bill by the Uruguayan legislature supplements the rising trend of international legal opinion that journalists should not be jailed for criminal defamation. In September 2004, the Inter-American Court, the legal arm of the Organization of American States, ruled that Paraguayan politician Ricardo Canese’s criminal defamation conviction violated international law. The court declared that the criminal proceedings themselves violated the American Convention on Human Rights, which Paraguay had ratified, because they were not “necessary in a democratic society.”

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

And in April 2007, Mexican President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa signed a bill that effectively eliminated criminal 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.