7 December 2011

Recent advancements in criminal defamation laws in Africa, Mexico offset by setbacks in Russia

Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou signing the Declaration of Table Mountain on 30 November 2011
Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou signing the Declaration of Table Mountain on 30 November 2011

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IFEX members have noted some significant advancements in the criminal defamation field these past weeks: the President of Niger has become the first head of state to endorse the Declaration of Table Mountain, which calls for repeal of criminal defamation and insult laws in Africa, and Mexico's Senate has unanimously approved to decriminalise slander and libel. But although Russia recently amended its defamation legislation, critics say it did not go far enough.

Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou signed the Declaration of Table Mountain in a 30 November ceremony in Niamey that drew more than 1,000 attendees from over 25 countries. It was organised by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), the World Editors Forum, the African Editors Forum, and the Maison de la Presse in Niger..

The Declaration of Table Mountain, which was adopted in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2007, identifies criminal defamation and "insult" laws as among the most severe obstacles to securing the future of the independent press in Africa, and calls for their repeal, as well as for putting press freedom higher on the African agenda.

According to WAN-IFRA, the vast majority of African nations continue to jail journalists and close media houses on charges of defamation or for insulting authorities or their policies. The practice prevents legitimate public discourse and critical writing and forces individuals to censor themselves, says WAN-IFRA.

Cheriff Sy, president of the African Editors Forum, told Issoufou, "More than the act of signing is your commitment to being an advocate with your peers for the abolition of criminal defamation and insult laws in Africa, and to make freedom of the press the focus of discussion."

Issoufou won the March 2011 election in which both candidates pledged to support freedom of expression and review media laws if elected. In a 16 July television and radio address, he again pledged his support for a free press in Africa as necessary for democracy.

Meanwhile, in Mexico on 29 November, the Mexican Senate unanimously voted to to decriminalise slander and libel, as laid out in the Print Offences Law ("Ley sobre Delitos de Imprenta"), report the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) and ARTICLE 19. Mexico joins El Salvador, Argentina and Uruguay as one of the few countries in Latin America that has decriminalised libel, says IAPA.

Federal senators said their action "sets new bases for strengthening freedom of expression and of the press in Mexico."

The move by the Senate finally brings the libel and slander articles in the Print Law in line with the federal penal and civil codes - making it impossible for a journalist to face jail time at the federal level for so-called "honour crimes". Violations of the laws are now treated as civil offences subject to award of damages.

"It will also be important for the Mexican law to be able to set reasonable and proportional damages so that these do not become limitations for news media and journalists," said IAPA.

The move is part of a noticeable shift toward more protection of the press at the federal level. According to the Knight Center, last month the Mexican Supreme Court ended a seven-year trial where the newspaper "La Jornada" accused a magazine of damaging its reputation. The Court indicated that freedom of expression supersedes the right to protect one's honour.

And in September 2011, a federal deputy proposed punishing anyone who defames a candidate or political party with six years in jail but the bill was defeated that same month, reports the Knight Center.

But the reform does not offer Mexicans complete protection from criminal defamation cases. Fifteen of Mexico's 32 states continue to carry criminal libel laws on their books - and federal laws do not supercede state laws, explains ARTICLE 19. In these Mexican states, defamation, libel, and slander are still punishable by prison sentences of up to four years. "We still have a long way to go," said ARTICLE 19.

Meanwhile, amendments to Russia's defamation legislation made last month - including partial decriminalisation of libel and insult - "will not improve the situation for journalists and the media in the country," says ARTICLE 19.

While Russia scrapped some libel and insult provisions of the criminal code, insults against public officials are still criminalised. Plus, the reforms did not touch civil liability for defamation, which still allows claimants to seek excessive awards, says ARTICLE 19. For example, the National Reserve Bank is seeking 11 million rubles (US$354,400) in damages from the publisher of the "Kommersant" newspaper for alleged defamation in an article.

Even worse, says ARTICLE 19, the state retained its powers to control speech by introducing administrative laws for libel and insult that are vague, provide for fines that are nearly three times more than what was outlined in the criminal code, and put a greater responsibility for defamation made in the media.

According to ARTICLE 19, Russia has a long history of abusing and arbitrarily using libel and insult provisions. A Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) 2005 report states that as many as 10,000 defamation cases a year have been filed against journalists and media outlets.

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