Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Is criticism of others in the military a violation of discipline or does characterizing it as an offense amount to censorship?

Is criticism of one's superiors, inferiors or colleagues a serious offense against discipline in the Armed Forces?  The Colombian Constitutional Court thinks this is censorship and violation of a military official's freedom of expression.

In a 6 to 2 decision on 24 September 2021, the Colombian Constitutional Court, struck down a provision of the Code of Military Discipline that considered such criticism a "serious offense."  In declaring the provision unconstitutional, the plenary of the Court pointed out that discipline is an essential condition for the existence of the Armed Forces and it is legitimate to characterize certain acts as offenses but within the limits of the Constitution.

Such limits include the principles of legality and precision (in characterizing the offense) which are derived from the fundamental guarantee of due process.  This means that the behavior that comprises the disciplinary offense must be directed at censuring the public servant's failure to carry out his functions, because in no other way could the offense be considered substantively related to the conduct.

The plenary of the Court concluded that in this matter due process was violated because the concepts employed in the Military Discipline Code were ambiguous and vague and did not precisely identify the conduct deemed offensive, which broke the connection between the offense and the public servant's function which it was intended to protect.

The petitioner had argued that to punish all criticism would violate freedom of expression, conscience and information.  Criticism of things that are done wrong leads to improvement in the best of cases and this is cut off when all criticism is prohibited.

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