Guatemala’s ruling party and allies are preparing a law criminalizing political criticism, with possible prison sentences of between two and five years aiming to prevent political defamation and “social panic.”
The bill was first presented on October 30 by lawmakers Eva Monte, Delia Bac, Karla Martinez, Dolores Beltran y Estuardo Galdamez, from the Citizens’ Alliance, Reformist Movement, and the ruling National Convergence Front (FCN), aiming to punish criticism of politicians, but legislators thought it could be perfected.
Galdamez announced that the initial bill, called “Law of Political Harassment,” would be removed from the agenda and replaced by the “Social Panic Law.”
“We’re looking for a more drastic law. All of those writing on social media behind a mask, a fictional name or a nickname will be prosecuted by the Public Ministry (MP),” declared Galdamez.
In interview with Emisoras Unidas, the lawmaker explained that the new approach of the bill is inspired in the “Financial Panic Law” (2008), which punishes those who participate in “smear campaigns against banking institutions.”
In turn, the proposed bill will prosecute people who “use any means or media, especially digital, and attack the honorability of people without reason,” besides those with the economic power to hire services for the purpose of attacking people on social media and fostering “social panic.”
“These are acts of defamation, slander and discrediting people in front of her or his family and society. These acts could even make a person go broke and lose her or his honorability. The question is: who punishes that?”
Galdamez explained that the bill doesn’t intend to censor criticism, but it rather aims to prevent lies from polarizing society without real reasons and protect people's reputations.
The original bill proposed the crime of “political harassment,” meaning that acts of pressure, persecution and harassment against elected servants or candidates would be punishable with up to three years in prison and a US$1,300 fine, besides a temporary political ban.
Meanwhile, physical or psychological “political violence” against politicians or candidates would be punishable with up to five years, a US$2,600 fine and a temporary political ban.
But opposition lawmakers and experts think the law has no future because it violates the “freedom of speech” constitutional principle.
Luis Fernandez Molina, a former judge from the Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ), told Emisoras Unidas the bill was “born dead” is only an attempt to silence the press, as supporting lawmakers think they can’t be criticized just because of their position.
Gonzalo Marroquin, ex-president of the Freedom of the Press Commission and Inter-American Press Society, declared he wasn’t surprised by who proposed the bill, as none of the lawmakers has a “clean, transparent and important” career in Congress.
Lawmaker and human rights defender Nineth Montenegro, leader of Encounter for Guatemala’s legislators, also showed her opposition to the bill and recommended to report publications instead of “restricting the freedom of speech that’s been so difficult to achieve” in the country.
“Being a public figure entails being exposed to criticism,” said Montenegro.