Argentina’s Chamber of Deputies on Thursday passed a bill removing prison sentences for slander and insult from the country’s penal code. Argentina’s Senate will now vote on the government-sponsored move.

The executive branch introduced the proposal to reform the criminal offences of calumnias e injurias (slander and insult) on 11 September this year, in response to a 2008 Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) ruling that overturned the conviction of independent journalist Eduardo Kimel for criminal defamation.

An Argentine court had handed Kimel a one-year jail term and a fine of US$20,000 in 2000 for criticising a judge’s handling of an investigation into the 1976 slaying of five priests. Kimel had criticised the judge in one short paragraph of his 1989 book ‘La Masacre de San Patricio’ (The San Patricio Massacre).

The IACHR ruled on 2 May last year that Kimel’s conviction violated his right to free expression, and urged the Argentine government to draw its legislation into line with its obligations under the American Convention on Human Rights.

According to current law in Argentina, “honour crimes” (delitos contra el honor) are covered by Articles 109 to 117 of the penal code, and carry a maximum sentence of three years in prison.

The proposed amendments will not decriminalise insult completely, but will reduce the maximum penalty to a 30,000 Argentine peso fine and include protection for comments made in matters of “public interest”.

The amendments also repeal Article 112 of the penal code, which currently states that someone accused of “ambiguous” slander or insult and who refuses to give a satisfactory explanation for their comments faces at least half of the “corresponding” penalty.

“We welcome this progress in decriminalising defamation, and hope that Argentina’s Senate sees fit to pass the reform bill into law,” said IPI Director David Dadge. “This move is in line with an encouraging trend in the region.”

Both Brazil and Uruguay partially repealed criminal defamation this year.

“Work still remains to be done however, in both Argentina and abroad,” cautioned Dadge. “Journalists should never face the possibility of imprisonment or a criminal record for carrying out their work, therefore criminal defamation must be repealed completely.

“IPI also continues to call for reform of Argentina’s recently passed Audiovisual Communication Law. Whereas yesterday’s vote improves press freedom in some areas, the broadcasting law weakens it in others,” continued Dadge.

Yesterday’s vote comes less than three weeks after Argentina’s Senate passed a highly controversial Audiovisual Communication Law that threatens to increase the potential for government interference in the broadcasting sector.