IAPA to deliver recommendations to Argentine legislators

IAPA to deliver recommendations to Argentine legislators

on access to information, decriminalization of libel today


BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (November 3, 2005)—The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) is due today to hand over to Argentine legislators its recommendations on access to public records and decriminalization of libel drawn up during a workshop for news media lawyers held here yesterday.


The attorneys, journalists and IAPA officers taking part in the workshop discussed the need to create a more favorable climate in Argentina for the practice of journalism and respect for the people’s right to know, within the framework of the IAPA-sponsored Declaration of Chapultepec. Among those participating were former Argentine Justice Minister Ricardo Gil Lavedra and prominent local attorneys Daniel Alberto Sabsay, Tomás Hutchinson, Gregorio Badeni, José Luis Lazzarini, and Asdrúbal Aguiar from Venezuela.


In closing the session, IAPA President Diana Daniels, of The Washington Post Company, Washington, D.C., declared, “The absence of a law on access to information and the use of criminal actions in libel cases are together a serious obstacle to freedom of the press.”


The objective of the workshop was to come up with a series of recommendations to legislators following three panel discussions in which topics discussed included professional secrecy, use of hidden cameras and the role of the lawyer in a media company.


Regarding the legislative bill for a law on access to public records currently being debated in the Argentine Congress, Argentine constitutional lawyer Sabsay stated that “if the law turns out to be what the bill proposes, then it is better that there be no law.” He based his criticism on amendments that the Argentine Senate introduced last year to the bill which had been passed by the lower house the year before and which had the support of various civil society groups and press organizations.


Sabsay, a professor at the University of Buenos Aires, blasted the Senate amendments, charging that they represented a setback to the spirit of the legislation that would oblige the government to make information in the public sector available to the people. It was counter-productive, he said, for the bill as it now stood to require a member of the public to justify his or her request for information while officials need not justify their refusal to supply it. In addition, he said, a range of vague exceptions was envisioned and the definition of information of general interest would dangerously include that of private companies, thus distorting the intent of the legislation.


Judge Tomás Hutchinson, a professor at the University of La Plata, agreed with the criticism of the bill, declaring that public officials in general cling to secrecy. “First we need to change the culture … we do not trust the laws because in this country they are not obligatory, just a suggestion,” he said.


Hutchinson added that there existed Decree Number 1,172 issued by the Executive Branch in 2003 on public information, which should serve as a basis for good national legislation. There were other measures on the issue in the provinces, among them Chubut, Jujuy, Misiones, Córdoba and La Pampa, he added.


Roberto Rock, editor of the Mexico City, Mexico, daily newspaper El Universal, spoke of the experience in his country, where a national access law was passed last year which had witnessed both successes and failures in its application.


In opening the sessions, the co-chairmen of the IAPA’s Chapultepec Committee, Sergio Muñoz of the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, California, and Barolomé Mitre of La Nación, Buenos Aires, Argentina, explained the objectives of the meeting.


Mitre stated that “the press has a special mission, going beyond its traditional role as guard dog, to foster democratic culture, without which any legislation is nothing more than a dead letter.”


Muñoz declared that he and his fellow journalists “respect the law but we reject the idea that any law be passed that applies only to journalists.”


Regarding decriminalization of libel committed in the press, Venezuelan attorney Asdrúbal Aguiar, visiting professor at the University of Buenos Aires, said, “Journalists need a climate of extensive security in order to be able to contribute to the formation of public opinion. Making it a criminal offense is intimidatory.”


Aguiar cited common law cases in Europe that have established that imprisonment is a disproportionate consequence because it interferes with and discourages freedom of expression while impacting negatively on the public’s right to know. He also mentioned the inter-American doctrine in which the Inter-American Human Rights Court raised the possibility of decriminalization in expressing in a number of rulings that the ultimate responsibility may be civil but never criminal.


La Nación columnist Joaquín Morales Solá  said that for seven years now the Argentine press had been calling for amendment of the country’s Criminal Code to remove libel from it as an offense and that the Civil Code include, in regard to such offenses, the question of malice aforethought.


Morales Solá said he was pessimistic, declaring, “I believe that those two codes are never going to be amended, at least not given the politicians we have today, and certainly not those in this government.”


Lawyer and constitutionalist Gregorio Badeni spoke of the role of the attorney in the news media, saying there was a need to practice more preventive than curative law, which would help journalists and the media avoid conflicts. To do this, he said, it was important to have knowledge of doctrine and common law decisions on press freedom issues, such as the question of malice aforethought, the Campillay doctrine in Argentina, and recourse to friend-of-the-court briefs before the Inter-American Human Rights Court.


Former government minister and Argentine Supreme Court justice Ricardo Gil Lavedra expressed support for legislation on professional secrecy that would relieve journalists of the requirement that they reveal their news sources.


“If that right is not protected one falls into indirect censorship, as the source is inhibited and the free flow of information is impeded,” Gil Lavedra said.


Uruguayan journalist Danilo Arbilla, a former president of the IAPA, defended the use of hidden cameras when it was a case of aiding in news coverage and regretted that their use had become indiscriminate in comedy and gossip programs.


“It is professionally valid,” Arbilla declared. “It is a product of the technology at the disposal of journalism that enables an important news item to be confirmed. It enables information that otherwise would be hidden to come to light.”


The panel discussions were moderated by former IAPA Presidents Raúl Kraiselburd, El Día, La Plata, Argentina, and Jorge Fascetto, Diario Popular, Buenos Aires, and IAPA director Saturnino Herrero Mitjans, Clarín, Buenos Aires.


The event was held under the IAPA Chapultepec Project, funded by the Robert McCormick Tribune Foundation.                      

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