CHILE Freedom of the press and opinion faces uncertain times as the National Congress studies a new and complicated press law. Mediaowners and editors, as well as journalists and the general public, are concerned about the proposed legislation. At the present time, the bill sent to Congress by the executive branch in 1993 is in the Senate Committee on the Constitution, Legislation and Justice on its second legislative round. Several events, however, seem to indicate threats to press freedom. Senator Miguel Otero, who chairs the Senate committee, has proposed including criminal libel in the bill. Criminal libel figures in the 1980 constitution, without mentioning it by name. The constitution says, "the imputation of a false event or act, or which causes unjustified damage or discredits a person, will be characterized as a crime and will be subject to penalties to be determined by law." Government officials, legislators and the entire media have rejected the idea of criminal libel being incorporated into the press law, warning that such inclusion would seriously limit freedom of expression. If the law were enacted, the press would face a permanent threat of judicial persecution and criminal penalties. It would also spawn dangerous self-censorship and the institutionalization of rumor mills. The media have spoken out strongly and unanimously against the proposed law. Even the bill's author has taken a step backward and pOinted out that it is only a draft that is being discussed in the Senate, and that he has not considered including criminal libel in the text of the bill. He added that he would even vote against such an inclusion, and stressed that his interest was in providing civil indemnity for defamation. Recently, Senator Sergio Fernandez presented a bill that clearly and completely strikes down the constitutional ambiguity concerning the crime of defamation on which Otero's notion was based. The proposed press law also retains a measure that university graduates will be given preference in the hiring of journalists. In this connection, there has been some progress. The Journalists Colegio wants to limit the professional practice of journalism to graduates. But the original bill establishes the concept of preference that was subsequently approved by the Chamber of Deputies. Opposition legislators and some from the ruling party believe that such a provision weakens the constitution, which gives all Chileans the right to work and recognizes freedom to inform and comment. Other critics of preferential rights for journalists with a university degree say that only free competition will improve the quality of the press, pointing out that many great figures in national journalism have never gone to college. Although the idea of making the government the official guarantor of the plurality of information has been declared unconstitutional, the Senate Committee on Constitution, Legislation and Justice has provided funds in the budget for studies on pluralism in the media. This constitutes a dangerous variation on the proposal that the Constitutional Court has already rejected. The Senate Committee - in a three-to-two vote - did away with the power of judges to prohibit for an unlimited time giving information to the public about court cases under their jurisdiction. The courts have frequently used this measure to restrict information, most notably in the case of the murder of journalist Jose Carrasco Tapia. In that case, an information ban was imposed from 1991 until just a few weeks ago. It was lifted as a result of pressure from the media and the Journalists Colegio. Even though the committee did away with this power, the danger continues. Socialist Senator Carlos Ominami, together with senators from several other political parties, is drawing up a bill to limit "in a reasonable manner" the ability of judges to issue gag orders. A similar potentially dangerous situation concerns media ownership and market share. The court ruled that the attempt to set quotas on media ownership and market share was unconstitutional. However, Socialist senators, according to Carlos Ominami, want to incorporate "reasonable regulations" governing media ownership and market share. These limitations are expressed in such a vague way that it makes them even more potentially dangerous to press freedom. Those who support such regulations say they wish to avoid a monopoly of media ownership. However, they forget that the situation in Chile is exemplary in the number of different media and the lack of red tape to set up new media. It is difficult to talk about monopolies when there are five cable television networks, more than 550 radio stations, 45 newspapers and 15 general interest magaZines. Finally, it is worth pointing out that in the parliamentary discussion of the new law, the Chamber of Deputies increased fines and also added innumerable jail sentences. This constitutes a threat to freedom of expression, as well as being a blatant distortion of the original bill agreed upon among the government, the press and radio associations and the Journalists Colegio. The Senate Committee on Constitution, Legislation and Justice has already approved some 20 of the more than 60 articles in the bill. It is difficult to predict when the legislative round will finish. It is even more difficult to predict how many of these latent threats to press freedom will meet final approval. Some of the measures approved by the Congress could face a presidential veto, as has been suggested in private by top government officials. In summation, the Law on Publicity Abuse, the Criminal Code, the Code on Military Justice, the State Security Law and the Constitution itself contain provisions limiting press freedom. So does law 19,423 concerning respect for and protection of public and private life. Until now, the good judgment of legislators and judges has kept this measure from being applied. In Chile, there is an excess of laws that lhnit and threaten press freedom. These include: Law 16,643, Publicity Abuses, a 1967 law, with multiple amendements made with restrictive intentions during the military regime, eliminated in great part by law 19,048 of February 13, 1991, a year after democracy was reestablished. However, the later law is equally drastic concerning libel and slander, the right to reply and other aspects involving press freedom. Moreover, it affirms the authority of a judge to ban coverage for an unlimited time, when he or she considers that making information public could hinder due process. This legislation, in spite of the last reforms, is too broad and punishing in its granting of powers, considerations the government took into account when it sent the new bill in question to Congress in 1993. Penal Code. In articles 416 to 422, there are references to libel and slander. It establishes, "Libel is the false imputation of a given crime. Slander includes all expressions or actions made to dishonor, discredit or slight another person." Fines and short prison sentences of differing degrees are established for when these offenses are committed in writing and with publicity. Military Justice Code. Article 274 refers to the crime of sedition. Article 284 refers to offenses or slander against military institutions or their officials. They establish prison sentences and fines. Concretely, the military courts, which still have the power to sentence journalists, have issued a warrant for the arrest of journalist Manuel Cabieses, editor of the magazine Punta Final, for allegedly inciting sedition. Law 19,297, State Security. It contains broad and mandatory provisions directed at those who commit crimes against internal state security. The definition of such crimes is so broad that it could be used as an effective tool to muzzle the press. The most clear example is in Article 6, which says that those committing crimes against public order include those who defame, libel or slander the president and other top government officials. This law also provides for punishment of media owners,editors and the authors of published articles considered contrary to state security. Law 19,423, 1995. This law modifies the criminal code concerning crimes against respect for and protection of private and public life of individuals and families. It establishes fines and prison sentences for those who photograph, record or make public any event, conversation or document originating in private places or those places without public access unless the subject has given express permission. The law does not spell out what is a private place, and thus is open to abuse. The breadth of the law is so great that even its own author, rightwing senator Miguel Otero, and other legislators have announced they plan to amend it to exclude the press. Other events that have violated press freedom are: March. Journalist Patricio Amigo of the television channel Megavision was attacked by individuals claiming to be from Civil Aeronautic Service security, while they were making a report inside the Santiago International Airport. April. Investigating official Alfredo Pfeiffer, looking into the crime against Senator Jaime Guzman in 1991, ordered a news blackout about the case after it was reopened. The ban was lifted after several weeks. June/July. The Chilean soccer team boycotted sports reporters because of what it considered to be unfair criticism. September. During street demonstrations, unidentified people threw rocks at the National Television mobile unit, injuring journalists Mario Aguilera and Verónica Flores. La Tercera journalists Cristian Riffo and Ricardo Rojas were also attacked by unidentified people persons during street demonstrations. La Tercera reporters were prevented from covering an explosion at an industrial plant in the capital. Carabineers confiscated a camera and film. Police searched the offices of the magazine Punta Final and showed an arrest warrant for editor Manuel Cabieses, who is also a member of the board of the Journalists Colegio. The arrest warrant was issued by a military court on charges of incitement to sedition after Cabieses published a report about the commander-in-chief in September 1991. The disappearance of journalist Guillermo Galvez in 1973 has not yet been solved. This case was documented in the collection of cases of people who have been arrested or have disappeared investigated by the Committee on Truth and Reconciliation.