(Santiago) - Chile's record on freedom of expression has improved little since the end of military rule, Human Rights Watch charged in a report released today.
Although the country has made great progress in prosecuting the abuses of the Pinochet dictatorship, the same repressive defamation laws that the military regime regularly employed against its critics are still in use.
Chile is unique among Latin American democracies in considering "contempt of authority" to be a crime against state security, meriting up to five years' imprisonment. Last month, Gen. Hernán Gabrielli Rojas, the acting chief of the air force, initiated a prosecution under the notorious State Security Law, against three former political prisoners who alleged that Gabrielli participated in their torture just after the September 1973 military coup.
"Chile trails the continent on freedom of expression," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Americas division. "At this pivotal moment in Chile's history, when the truth about past atrocities is coming fully to light, it is unthinkable that these laws continue to constrain the public debate."
The 45-page Human Rights Watch report, Progress Stalled: Setbacks in Freedom of Expression Reform in Chile, calls on the Chilean legislature to repeal provisions of the State Security Law that criminalize speech, as well as to pass other much-needed free expression reforms. Although it has been over a decade since the end of military rule in Chile, reform legislation still languishes in Congress.
The criminal codes of eighteen Latin American countries have similar provisions criminalizing "contempt of authority" (known in Spanish as "desacato"). Yet Chile's laws are more repressive in nature and scope, and are used more frequently, whereas in other countries the laws are rarely if ever applied.
Besides the prosecutions initiated by Gabrielli, Human Rights Watch knows of three other prosecutions for contempt of authority initiated so far this year. In 2000, journalist José Ale received a 541-day suspended sentence for an article summarizing criticisms of the career of former Supreme Court chief justice Servando Jordán. Although the Supreme Court upheld the sentence, President Ricardo Lagos pardoned Ale in July.
Justice Jordán is also behind the prosecution in April 1999 of journalist Alejandra Matus's damning expose of corruption in the Chilean judiciary, The Black Book of Chilean Justice. Invoking the State Security Law, Jordán had the book banned in Chile. Matus herself had to leave the country to avoid detention and, in a striking commentary on Chile's archaic speech restrictions, was granted political asylum in the United States.
The scandal caused in Chile by the Matus case led the government to support proposals in Congress to repeal provisions of the State Security Law that restrict freedom of expression. These amendments are part of a comprehensive press bill, which has been held up in the legislature for eight years. The bill includes other long overdue freedom of expression reforms, such as an end to judicial bans on press coverage of criminal investigations, an end to the jurisdiction of military courts over speech crimes such as "sedition," and the protection of journalists' sources.
Even though the State Security Law purports to cover crimes against national security, those in office may rely on it even to silence opponents in private legal quarrels. Human Rights Watch's report describes five state security prosecutions opened by the wealthy senator and former presidential candidate Francisco Javier Errázuriz, three of them filed in February 2001. In one case, Marcos Jaramillo, a landowner with whom Errázuriz is in a dispute over the boundaries of their respective estates, spent twelve days behind bars for "insulting" the senator.
Prior censorship is another problem for which Chile stands out in Latin America. Chile still has a board of film censors that includes officers of the armed forces and the police. Human Rights Watch has found, however, that most recent instances of prior censorship are the result of court decisions, not acts of the film censorship board.
A case in point is the banning in 1997 of Martin Scorsese's film The Last Temptation of Christ, which Chilean judges found to have damaged Christ's honor and reputation, as well as that of his followers. In February 2001, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled unanimously that Chile's prohibition on the film violated the American Convention on Human Rights. The decision was expected to give extra impetus to a bill bogged down in Congress since 1997 to eliminate film censorship, which is presently mandated in Chile's constitution.
Vivanco urged the Chilean legislature, as it reconvenes for the 2001 session, to give first priority to passing a reform package.