Washington, D.C., July 1, 2005. The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expresses satisfaction with judicial decisions in Guatemala and Honduras that found “desacato” laws (contempt) to be unconstitutional. The Rapporteurship considers these measures to be important steps in strengthening freedom of expression in the hemisphere.
On May 19, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Honduras arrived at its decision of the unconstitutionality of desacato laws, which were penalized with two to four years imprisonment. The decision originated in a petition of unconstitutionality filed by the General Prosecutor of the Republic in 2003.
In its ruling, Honduras’s highest court took into account the recommendations of the Rapporteurship and the IACHR, who both urged that the desacato laws be abolished. Desacato laws, which make criticism of public officials a crime, confer a greater level of protection on public officials than on private persons. These laws are widely considered to be counter to democratic principles. They also violate the full exercise of freedom of expression guaranteed by the American Convention, since they inhibit criticism and diminish public debate.
On June 14, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala suspended desacato laws, which called for imprisonment of six months to six years. The ruling came as a result of a petition of unconstitutionality filed by Mario Fuentes Destarac, president of the Guatemalan Chamber of Journalism.
The desacato, recognized in several criminal codes in the hemisphere, criminalizes offensive expressions directed at public officials. Since its inception, the Office of the Special Rapporteur has examined the problem of desacato laws due to the danger that they could become a mechanism to stifle pluralistic and democratic debate on affairs of government. As Principle 11 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression of the IACHR states, “public officials are subject to greater scrutiny by society”. Desacato laws, therefore, restrict freedom of expression and the right to information.
In two visits made to Honduras and Guatemala, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Eduardo Bertoni, had recommended the abolition of these desacato laws (see Guatemala OEA/Ser.L/V/II.118 - 2004.esp and Press Release 91/03). The Rapporteurship expresses approval of the decisions, which represent an advancement for the protection of freedom of expression, and it urges the governments of both countries to adopt the appropriate measures to effectively eliminate the crime of desacato.
For more information about the Rapporteurhip: http://www.cidh.org/relatoria/