Dominican Republic court partially strikes down criminal libel laws

New York, February 25, 2016 — A recent decision by the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Court to strike down laws providing for criminal penalties for defamation is a step forward in the fight to eliminate criminal defamation laws in the Americas, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. CPJ called on Dominican authorities to strike all criminal penalties for defamation.

In response to a 2013 complaint filed by the independent advocacy group Fundación Prensa y Derecho (Foundation for Press and Law) and the directors of the dailies Listín Diario, El Caribe, and El Día, the Constitutional Court on February 21 ruled seven articles of the 1962 press law invalid on the grounds they contravened free-expression guarantees in the constitution and the American Convention on Human Rights, which the Dominican Republic ratified in 1978, according to a statement cited in local media.

Four of the articles struck down on Sunday criminalized defaming public figures or state institutions. The remaining three articles established a system of what the court and the press have called “cascading liability:” Editors were deemed primarily liable for defamatory material published in their publications, but if an editor could not be identified, the laws held the author responsible, followed by the printer, vendor, and distributor. In declaring these latter provisions invalid, the Constitutional Court upheld and expanded on a 2013 Supreme Court ruling that one of these articles was invalid on the grounds that one should not be held responsible for someone else’s actions.

“The Dominican Constitutional Court’s decision to strike these laws is a positive step, but it shouldn’t be the last,” said CPJ’s senior Americas program coordinator Carlos Lauría. “We urge Dominican authorities to continue the important work of getting rid of all remaining criminal defamation laws.”

The press law and the criminal code still carry criminal penalties of up to six months in prison for defaming private individuals and up to one year in prison for defaming racial or religious groups. Individuals who defame the president or foreign officials can face a year in prison. The Constitutional Court in 2015 struck down a new criminal code that would have removed all prison sentences for defamation on procedural grounds.

CPJ has documented the dangers that criminal defamation laws pose to free expression, and has campaigned, alongside partner organizations, to eliminate these laws throughout the Americas. While Jamaica is the only country in the hemisphere to have entirely repealed criminal defamation provisions, Mexico has decriminalized defamation laws at the federal level, and Argentina eliminated libel and slander laws in matters of public interest.

On March 2 CPJ will present a new special report prepared by the law firm Debevoise and Plimpton LLP, in collaboration with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, on the status of criminal defamation laws in the Americas at a panel discussion in Lima, in cooperation with Perú’s Instituto Prensa y Sociedad.