(Santiago de Chile) - Eight years after Chile regained democracy, legal restrictions on free expression are more pervasive than in any other democratic society in the Western hemisphere, according to a report published today by Human Rights Watch.
In the 165-page report, Human Rights Watch blames government leaders for failing to tackle authoritarian laws on free expression imposed by the military, as well as some that predate military rule. "Scraping a little below the democratic veneer, one finds a deep distrust of free debate," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Americas division. "Civilian leaders are still afraid of the enormous influence of Augusto Pinochet in Chilean society. This is the legacy of his seventeen years of dictatorship."
General Pinochet, who returned the government to civilians in 1990, was detained in London on October 16, 1998, on charges of crimes against humanity filed by a Spanish judge.
Chile's 1958 State Security Law criminalizes strongly-worded criticism of government authorities, military chiefs, Supreme Court justices, and even members of Congress. Such criticism is deemed an offense against public order, punishable by a prison sentence of up to five years. Since 1990, eight politicians and fifteen journalists have been arrested and charged under the law. The law has been an important tool for General Pinochet to persecute his human rights critics.
Congress and members of the judiciary have also brought several suits based on the State Security Law. One former Pinochet minister was given a suspended sentence in 1996 for insulting Congress, a case now under consideration by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights of the Organization of American States. "This law stifles legitimate political debate, no matter who initiates the prosecution," said Vivanco. He urged President Eduardo Frei to seek immediate repeal of the law.
Several articles of the military penal code also limit political criticism. Military tribunals have responsibility for trying the crime of sedition, for example, which deprives civilian critics of the right to be judged by an independent and impartial court. Current laws allow judges to ban any press coverage of court proceedings on controversial criminal cases, and thereby to conceal possible shortcomings in investigations and trial procedures.
The report charges that judges meticulously implement the letter of the law, but fail to take into account basic human rights principles. "In recent years, we have seen judges putting constitutional rights into a hierarchy, with freedom of expression consistently ranking below other rights, such as honor or privacy," said Vivanco. Judges used this argument to ban a book freely available in Argentina (journalist Francisco Martorell's Diplomatic Impunity) and a film widely available outside the country (Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ).
Film censorship, although less prevalent today than under the military government, is still explicitly mandated by the Constitution and is practiced by an undemocratic agency that largely works in secret, the Council of Cinematographic Evaluation. Chilean television has been at the center of a public debate recently due to the unpopularity of restrictions affecting cable, which now reaches 25 percent of Chilean homes. These restrictions include both tight government regulations on broadcasts depicting sex and violence, as well as the editorial policy of local cable operators, who routinely cut programs and films offered by international cable companies.
The Human Rights Watch report found self-censorship widespread in television, partly because the government's television watchdog body strictly enforces ill-defined regulations on morality. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch stated, directors at the public channel, Television Nacional, have increasingly sacrificed pluralism in favor of opinions unlikely to give offense, making it difficult to find programs of real critical content anywhere in the medium.