Media Defence and seven other free speech organisations have today filed an amicus brief before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (the IACtHR) in the case of Tulio Álvarez v Venezuela. The case concerns the use of criminal legislation, including harsh and wide-ranging penalties, to stifle freedom of expression, and highlights the potential for abuse of such laws.
The applicant, Mr. Álvarez, is a Venezuelan constitutional lawyer and university professor who was criminally convicted of “ongoing aggravated defamation” in respect of a column he published in a local newspaper regarding the alleged misappropriation of funds from the National Assembly’s Workers’ and Retirees’ Savings Bank. The criminal case against him was brought by a former congressman, and then-president of the National Assembly, who Mr. Álvarez had suggested in his column was responsible for the misappropriation of the funds. In February 2005, Mr. Álvarez was sentenced to two years and three months in prison, and disqualified from holding public office. When his sentence of imprisonment was later suspended, he was barred from leaving the country during the probationary period that replaced the suspended prison sentence.
Mr. Álvarez took his case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (the Commission), arguing that the Venezuelan state had violated his rights to freedom of expression, fair trial, freedom of movement and his political rights under the American Convention on Human Rights. The Commission found in favour of Mr. Álvarez in 2017 and referred the case to the IACtHR. In doing so it noted that criminal prosecutions for defamation of public officials and on matters of public interest had become a worrying trend in Venezuela, resulting in intimidation and self-censorship disproportionately affecting freedom of expression.
The amicus brief submitted today by Media Defence, PEN International, PEN America, PEN Mexico, PEN Quebec, Media Law Resource Center, Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP), and Human Rights Watch highlights the increasing international recognition that criminal defamation laws are incompatible with international standards on freedom of expression. The intervention argues that criminalisation of speech should be a measure of last resort in exceptional circumstances, limited to instances of hate speech and incitement to violence, and that criminal defamation laws should be abolished to prevent abuse of such laws, such as in Mr. Álvarez’s case. Finally, the intervention notes that even civil defamation laws can have a chilling effect on freedom of speech if penalties imposed are overly harsh.
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