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Mexico Senate repeals century-old libel law

While the repeal will likely have little effect on journalists’ safety, it could serve as the foundation for a new, modernized legal framework for free speech and press freedom in Mexico.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — Mexico’s upper house of Congress voted Wednesday to repeal a 1917 law stipulating fines and prison time for slander and libel.

Although it had not been applied for decades, the Senate voted unanimously to throw out the law, considering it to be obsolete in modern Mexican society.

“The ruling commissions agreed that the Printing Crimes Law no longer has a place in our legal system, as it is a regulatory framework that for the sake of the rule of law unjustifiably restricts the exercise of fundamental liberties such as freedom of expression, freedom of opinion and freedom of the press,” said Senator Olga Sánchez Cordero, chair of the Justice Committee, during debate.

On the Senate’s back burner for over a year, the little-known law may have remained there indefinitely had it not been thrust into public debate in February when a member of Mexico’s lower house of Congress aimed to reinforce certain penalties under the law. 

Federal Deputy Bennelly Hernández Ruedas proposed a bill that would have increased the fines for “insulting” the president and other government officials. Despite being in the same political party, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador vowed to veto the bill if it ever found its way to his desk.

Both the initiative and the promise to tank it were likely little more than posturing from both politicians, experts said.

But the law’s revocation had full Morena support in the Senate. Majority Leader Ricardo Monreal Ávila referred to this initiative in his speech during debate, calling it contrary to what he and his colleagues in the Senate were doing.  

“With this abrogation, we bury all contradictions, all setbacks in the progressive advance of the guarantee of broader protection for citizens,” said Monreal, noting that the law violated rights enshrined in Mexico’s Constitution, such as the right to a public hearing, due process, freedom of expression and access to information.

“Obviously, any regression to the fundamental rights of men and women is inadmissible,” he said. 

Passed during the turmoil and uncertainty of the Mexican Revolution, the law was meant to be temporary but remained on the books for more than a century.

Senator Emilio Álvarez Icaza pointed out the anachronistic nature of the law in a tweet following the vote: “Obsolete crimes, promotion of self-censorship; permissive with political power to threaten journalists and the media.”

López Obrador’s critics have called him out for his antagonistic rhetoric toward journalists, for whom Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world. 

Still, the repeal will likely do little to make Mexico a safer place for journalists, according to Luis Eduardo Velázquez, chief editor of the news website Capital CDMX. Such a change would require a regulatory update to the federal program meant to protect journalists and activists. 

But the repeal does create the perfect opportunity to rebuild the laws protecting freedom of expression and freedom of the press from the ground up, he said, taking into account just how much the media landscape has changed in the century since the law’s passage. 

“Without a doubt, we must rethink an agenda that is in accordance with the reality where the virtual world prevails and communication is mostly through the internet,” Velázquez said. 

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Categories / International, Law, Politics

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