19 January 2011

Assembly pulls plug on controversial libel bill

A controversial bill that included up to four years of prison for those who "insult" the president or other elected officials was withdrawn by the president of Panama's National Assembly, reports Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The bill had been roundly criticised by IFEX members.

The draft law was announced on 5 January - less than a week before it was pulled - and prompted severe criticism from the opposition and journalists, who argued that it was an attack on free expression. "After listening to the various journalists' organisations, we decided to withdraw it," said National Assembly president José Muñoz, one of the bill's sponsors.

The announcement came after Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli warned that even if the bill passed, he would veto it.

RSF, the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) and the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), as well as other concerned groups such as the National Journalists' Guild of Panama, opposed the bill calling it a "step backwards" for freedom of expression and reminiscent of dictatorship-era gag rules.

According to IAPA, Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay have repealed insult laws in recent years.

Four other bills affecting media rights and free expression are currently before the National Assembly, according to RSF. One of them, introduced in October, would increase the maximum penalty for defamation from 18 months to five years in prison.

Putting free expression issues in perspective.

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