Mexico’s senate dumps criminal libel offenses

The Mexican senate has passed a bill to make defamation, libel and slander no longer criminal offenses.

The full Senate Tuesday night approved, 81 to 0, a repeal of Articles 1 and 31 of the press offenses law. It thus ended punishment by imprisonment for defamation, libel and slander, instead making them civil offenses. The bill now awaits signing into law by President Felipe Calderón and then its immediate publication in Mexico’s Official Gazette.

Costa Rica has a criminal penalty, and lawmakers have declined to change it even though there has been pressure from abroad and from the local press.

Under Costa Rica’s Penal Code, anyone who libels, slanders, defames, or reproduces offensive statements against someone, even public officials, can be fined or placed on an official list of convicted criminals, but not imprisoned, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The Sala IV threw out prison terms for defamation in early 2010 in acquitting a reporter for the Spanish language press, the committee, an international organization noted.

The Inter American Press Association Wednesday praised the action in México. It called the move a notable advance for press freedom and democracy.

The action by the Senate brings the press law into line with the federal penal and civil codes. In April 2007 President Calderón signed a decree repealing several clauses of the federal penal code, among them Articles 350 to 365 which made the offenses of defamation, libel and slander punishable by imprisonment. Violations of that law would then be treated as civil offenses subject to award of damages rather than offenders having to face prison terms. Federal senators said their action sets new bases for strengthening freedom of expression and of the press in Mexico.

In addition to Mexico and El Salvador countries that have also made defamation no longer a criminal offense are Argentina and Uruguay.

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