Guatemala lawmakers propose jail for some political speech

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Five lawmakers introduced legislation Tuesday that would punish with prison time certain kinds of speech criticizing elected officials and candidates in Guatemala, prompting charges that it would violate constitutional measures guaranteeing freedom of expression.

The initiative targets "those who make acts of pressure, persecution and harassment" against politicians "in any medium of diffusion and/or on digital platforms, with the end of impeding the exercise of their political rights."

It calls for sentences of two to three years.

Eva Monte, a lawmaker who has supported President Jimmy Morales, denied that the bill would stifle free speech and said it aims to crack down on defamation.

"This will serve to punish, for example, when a candidate or politician is linked to cases of corruption but in reality is not being investigated or accused," Monte said. "That would be a kind of coercion and should be punished."

"This also seeks to protect lawmakers, the vice president and the president," she added.

Morales is suspected of accepting illicit campaign finance contributions, but a request to withdraw the immunity from prosecution that he enjoys as sitting president was not approved by congress. The president denies wrongdoing.

Human rights prosecutor Jordan Rodas warned that the measure is unconstitutional.

"It goes against the free expression of thought," Rodas said. "Politicians should mind their actions to avoid criticism."

The bill goes first to a congressional commission for analysis of its constitutionality. Two similar initiatives earlier this year were heavily criticized, including by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and failed to win approval by lawmakers.

Amid allegations of possible illegal activity against Morales, family members and political associates, the president has moved to defang a U.N. commission investigating corruption in the country.

The president recently declined to renew the commission's mandate for another two years, giving it until the end of its current term next September to wrap up its activities and leave the country.