Inter-American Court’s defamation decision represents blow to freedom of expression in Argentina, CPJ says

By Larissa Manescu

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the autonomous regional court under the Organization of American States, has decided for the first time that criminal defamation doesn’t affect freedom of expression in an unprecedented ruling that the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called a major setback for the region.

The ruling is a result of a case that began in the 1990s when Argentine publisher Carlos Mémoli and his son Pablo criticized in their small newspaper La Libertad the sale of public cemetery vaults by a mutual benefit company.

The company sued the Mémolis, who were found guilty of criminal defamation and received suspended prison sentences in 1994 of one and five months respectively.

The father and son became frustrated with national court procedures in Argentina and took their case  to the Inter-American Court. However, in a 4-3 decision that was announced two weeks ago, the Court decided that the Mémolis' conviction posed no threat to freedom of expression. The court also ruled that opinions are subject to criminal sanctions and the misuse of public goods – public cemetery vaults, in the Mémoli case – does not represent an issue of public interest.

The decision disappointed CPJ, which said that "the same court had earlier stated that the defamation laws used to convict the publishers were incompatible with the American Convention on Human Rights."

The main controversy surrounding this decision is that the Court ruled differently in 2008, when it voided the 1999 conviction of Argentine journalist and author Eduardo Kimel, who was charged with criminal defamation when he questioned the investigation into the 1976 murder of five priests during the Argentine military dictatorship in his book The San Patricio Massacre.

José Miguel Vivanco, the executive director of the America’s division of Human Right Watch, also condemned the ruling on the Mémolis' case in an opinion piece for La Nación.

“In a region where institutional weakness is the norm, this serious setback not only weakens fundamental rights and liberties, but also complicates the fight against corruption, a battle that we continue to lose,” Vivanco said.

However, despite the Court's decision, CPJ said that the ruling will not affect as a precedent other cases in the Americas that have to do with the criticism of public officials.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.