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Chile: Pledge Welcomed on Freedom of Expression Reforms

(Washington, DC) - Human Rights Watch today welcomed President Ricardo Lagos's proposal to introduce legislation to repeal contempt of authority provisions of the Chilean Criminal Code. The proposed reforms, which would put an end to the special legal protection public officials now enjoy against defamation, were specifically called for in Human Rights Watch's recently published report on freedom of expression in Chile.

"As a sign of Chile's democratic maturity, it is time for Chilean lawmakers to forgo their long-accustomed privileges against criticism," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Americas division. "These reforms would allow a genuinely open public debate."

Articles 263, 264 and 265 of the Criminal Code cover insults to a broad range of public authorities, including the president, members of Congress, judges, ministers of state or "other authorities in exercise of their office." In its 45-page report, titled Progress Stalled: Setbacks in Freedom of Expression Reform, Human Rights Watch urged the Chilean government to repeal these provisions as well as the defamation provisions of the State Security Law. Both sets of laws, explained the report, serve the same purpose of inhibiting criticism and restraining the public debate.

The announced reforms supplement a proposal, awaiting approval in the legislature since 1999, to repeal sections of the State Security Law which criminalize strongly-worded criticism of public authorities, including government ministers, Supreme Court justices, members of Congress and the commanders-in-chief of the armed forces. The government has said that the State Security Law reforms, which are part of a comprehensive bill on press freedoms, should clear Congress in April. It intends to present the Criminal Code reforms to Congress by the end of the year.

To date, objections in Congress have prevented the enactment of any reform of Chile's extensive and anachronistic laws limiting free speech.

On March 13, delegates of Human Rights Watch, accompanied by the President of the Inter-American Press Association, Danilo Arbilla, held a one-hour meeting with President Lagos to discuss the organization's concerns.

"We were very encouraged by President Lagos' receptivity to our comments and criticisms. He has since acknowledged publicly that Chile has enormous ground to make up on freedom of expression," said Vivanco.

In addition to the repeal of defamation provisions, the Chilean government has said it also intends to carry out a thorough review of privacy laws to ensure that they do not bar journalists from investigating matters involving a public interest. The Criminal Code introduced in 1995 currently imposes sweeping restrictions on investigative journalism by barring any intrusion into the privacy of public figures.

"If Lagos succeeds in his reform agenda," said Vivanco, "Chile could catch up with and even surpass other nations in the region in terms of protecting freedom of expression."

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