Most nations in Americas have laws that can suppress journalism - report

by Ellen Wulfhorst | @EJWulfhorst | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 2 March 2016 05:01 GMT

David Romero, journalist and director of opposition broadcaster Globo, is seen outside the Supreme Court in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, January 6, 2016. Romero, a journalist strongly critical of the Honduras government, faced charges of defamation and libel after reporting a case of public corruption that splashed President Orlando Hernandez last year. REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera

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Criminal defamation laws routinely used to silence dissent and keep information from citizens

NEW YORK, March 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - All but one nation in the Americas have criminal defamation laws that can be used against journalists to suppress freedom of expression, according to a report released on Wednesday.

Only Jamaica has entirely repealed laws that would permit journalists to be prosecuted for their reporting, according to the study released by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Two-thirds of the countries in North, Central and South America routinely use such laws to silence dissent and keep information from their citizens, the report said.

"Despite the emerging consensus that criminal defamation laws violate international freedom of expression standards, the continued use of such provisions has deterred the aggressive reporting necessary for robust debate in a free and open society," CPJ's Carlos Lauria and Sara Rafsky wrote in the report.

"Even if infrequently applied, the continuing existence of these laws represents a lurking danger to free expression."

Laws that can be used against journalists include defamation, libel, calumny, or making false charges, and "desacato" offenses which refer to insulting or offending the state or state officials, the report said.

Specifically the report said 32 out of 33 nations in the Americas penalize defamation with criminal laws that can be used to punish journalists.

Jamaica from 2011 to 2013 repealed its laws that criminalized libel and amended constitutional provisions regarding freedom of expression, it said.

Even where such laws are not typically enforced, their very existence has a "chilling effect" on the spread of information, the report said.

Criminal defamation laws have resulted in imprisonment in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Grenada, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, the United States, Uruguay and Venezuela, it said.

Mexico and the United States do not have criminal defamation laws at the federal level, but do at the state level, it said.

While there is a trend toward abolition of criminal defamation laws in the United States and Mexico, there are no such trends in Central America, the Caribbean or South America, it said.

The report was prepared by the law firm of Debevoise and Plimpton for CPJ and the Thomson Reuters Foundation which runs Trust Law, a global pro bono legal program that connects law firms with non-governmental organizations and social enterprises seeking social and environmental change.

(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, editing by Alisa Tang. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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