Freedom of Expression

Press Release R128/12






Washington, D.C., October 26, 2012 – The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) welcomes the important advances in the area of freedom of expression in the region, with particular regard to the emblematic decisions taken by the Parliament of Grenada and the Constitutional Plurinational Court of Bolivia. The Office of the Special Rapporteur congratulates these States for the aforementioned decisions and will disseminate them extensively in the framework of its mandate to promote freedom of expression in the Americas.


According to information received, in July, the Parliament of Grenada passed the Criminal Code (Amendment) Act of 2012, which repealed the offenses of intentional and negligent libel contained in sections 252 and 253 of the Code. These crimes carried a penalty of between six months and two years of imprisonment. The Office of the Special Rapporteur considers this to be a positive legislative achievement, which contributes decisively to the protection of freedom of expression and promotes the strengthening of debate on matters of public interest. The Office of the Special Rapporteur observes that the offenses of seditious libel and defamation of Her Majesty, established in sections 327 and 328 of the Code, remain part of the criminal law of Grenada, and it hopes that these offenses can be reviewed in conformity with the important reforms already adopted.


Furthermore, the Constitutional Plurinational Court of Bolivia declared unconstitutional Article 162 of the Criminal Code, which established aggravated prison terms for the offense of defaming a public official (desacato). By means of Sentence 1250/2012 of September 20, 2012, the Court indicated that the provisions of the article were unconstitutional because they disproportionately affected freedom of expression. According to the Constitutional Court, the crime of desacato creates an unconstitutional situation of inequality between public officials and citizens and is incompatible with international human rights commitments. Similarly, it emphasized that public officials must be the subject of special and widespread scrutiny, as this promotes vigorous debate about matters of public relevance. The Constitutional Tribunal reaffirmed the binding nature of the judgments of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and cited extensively to the doctrine of the inter-American system in the area of freedom of expression, including the IACHR’s 1994 Report on the Compatibility of "Desacato" Laws with the American Convention on Human Rights. The aforementioned sentence constitutes an emblematic advancement in the area of freedom of expression and underscores the importance of bringing domestic legislation into conformity with international standards in this area. The Office of the Special Rapporteur considers that the judgment represents a significant step forward in the protection and strengthening of freedom of expression in the region.


Today, the crime of desacato does not exist in the majority of States in the Americas. Furthermore, a number of States have derogated laws that criminalize defamation against public officials. Mexico, for example, repealed the federal norms that permitted individuals who offended the honor of a public official to be tried for criminal defamation, and a number of the states of the Mexican federation have done the same. In 2007, the National Assembly of Panama similarly decriminalized defamation in relation to criticism or opinions regarding official acts or omissions of high-ranking public servants. In April 2009, the Supreme Court of Brazil declared the Press Law incompatible with the Brazilian Constitution; the Law had imposed severe prison and pecuniary penalties on journalists for the crime of defamation. In June 2009, the Legislature of Uruguay eliminated from the Criminal Code the sanctions for the dissemination of information or opinions about public officials and matters of public interest, with the exception of those cases where the person allegedly affected could demonstrate the existence of "actual malice". In November 2009, the legislature of Argentina passed a reform to the Criminal Code doing away with prison terms for the crime of defamation, and decriminalizing speech about matters of public interest. Following this trend, in December of 2009, the Supreme Court of Costa Rica derogated a provision of the Press Law that established a prison penalty for crimes against honor. Similarly, in December of 2011 the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador approved a reform that substituted fines for prison sentences where crimes against honor are concerned and established greater protection for expressions dealing with public figures or matters of public interest. In States including Colombia, Jamaica and Peru, important initiatives aimed at reforming the respective Criminal Codes have also been presented.


The Office of the Special Rapporteur calls on OAS Member States to follow these important advances and to bring their national legal frameworks into conformity with inter-American freedom of expression standards.


The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression was created by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to encourage the defense of the right to freedom of thought and expression in the hemisphere, given the fundamental role this right plays in consolidating and developing the democratic system.