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Kirchner Allies in Argentina's Congress Want to Censor Discriminatory Comments Online

Legislators belonging to President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner's majority coalition have proposed updating a 1988 anti-discrimination law to outlaw "offensive" speech on the internet. Critics call the proposal an attack on free speech.

by Gaston Cavanagh
Jul 24 2015, 10:35pm

Photo by Rodrigo Abd/AP

What happens when a government fails to fundamentally understand how the internet works? It might look a little like Argentina's government does now — because legislators loyal to President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner have launched a plan to censor offensive commentary on online.

If Kirchner's majority coalition successfully reforms the country's 27-year-old anti-discrimination law, anyone who posts menacing or discriminatory comments online could face up to three years in prison.

Diana Conti, a congresswoman from Kirchner's Front for Victory party, is one of the sponsors of the reform proposal. "The antidiscrimination law came into effect on 1988, and this proposal updates the criteria to fight against discrimination," she said in a recent radio interview.

"Freedom of expression has a limit, which is discrimination. That is decided by international conventions. You can have freedom of expression, but you can't discriminate, because that's a crime," Conti told an interviewer.

Article 21 of the reform proposal was approved almost unnoticed by Argentina's human rights commission on July 14. The proposal still has to be considered by the commissions for criminal legislation and justice before being submitted for approval to the wider congress, where Kirchner enjoys a majority.

In recent days, opposition figures and free-speech advocates began crying foul, saying the reform aimed at commentary online would threaten free speech and be almost impossible to enforce.

"Once more, we're encountered with a law proposal that will hardly eradicate problems, creating new ones instead, disguised under the defense of a good cause," Bea Busaniche, secretary of the free-speech group Via Libre Foundation, told VICE News.

The ambiguity and lack of definitions in the law's text are the main elements causing public stir. "Anyone who considers astrology as a pseudoscience and feels offended by it, could activate the process to stop horoscopes from being published," Busaniche said.

The only clear definition inside the law is the list of speech considered discriminatory. The law will fall on those messages that affect or insult people based on race, ethnicity, nationality, language, dialect or accent, religion, ideology, political opinion, and sex or sexual orientation.

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Even some government supporters have warned authorities about the risks posed by attempts to regulate speech on the internet. Argentina's socialist party, which belongs to the Kirncherist majority, is supporting the law but has expressed worry that its application would be in private hands.

Last October, the CELS organisation, an advocate for the protection and promotion of human rights, published a statement warning that the law proposal "ignores the standards related to freedom of expression that are recognized by the Inter-American System of Human Rights, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression."

Backlash in social networks came quick. "The antidiscrimination project is trash. Throw it away, do it, it gives food to the beasts," user @catanpeist wrote.

"If you want to defend the "antidiscrimination" law, it's good. But don't tell me it's not censorship, because it is," wrote a news editor named Osvaldo Bazan.

Another Twitter user wrote: "We're fucked. We don't appreciate the right for a secret ballot, freedom of expression, and who knows how many other basic things."

"I am a leftist and I can criticize a finance company because it takes all the money outside the country. But with this Article 21, if they believe I discriminated against them, they can ask for my comment to be deleted," said Miryam Bregman, one socialist legislator.

A petition for the Argentine senate to stop the Iiternet anti-discrimination law is already gatherign signatures.

"Let's not forget we live in a democracy. Let's fight together for the freedom of expression on the internet. We must defend the freedom of thoughts and opinions," reads a description for the online campaign, which is seeking to gather more than 50,000 supporters.

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Follow Gaton Cavanagh on Twitter: @gastoncavanagh