FIFA defends bans for ‘false’ info, tarnishing reputations

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              FILE - In this Saturday, June 23, 2018, file photo, FIFA President Gianni Infantino attends the group G match between Belgium and Tunisia at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Spartak Stadium in Moscow, Russia. In two years as FIFA president, Infantino has been accused of violating governance rules and forcing out officials who threatened his position. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader, File)
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Justifying an overhaul of its ethics code, FIFA asserted Tuesday that people who “tarnish the reputations of others” must be banned from soccer.

The Associated Press revealed Monday that a new offense of defamation had been added to the document governing the conduct of participants in soccer, with scope for a ban of up to five years from the game.

While the code provides no precise definition of defamation, FIFA has now provided further context in a statement, saying it is “the act of communicating false information that harms the reputation of an individual or a group.” The ethics committee would determine what constitutes “false information.”

Amid criticism from some football federation presidents of his decision to oust the organization’s ethics judge and prosecutor in 2017, FIFA President Gianni Infantino decried “fake news and alternative facts about FIFA” during a speech to member associations. When later asked to provide examples, Infantino backtracked, saying it was “my feeling … there are a lot of people spreading a lot of wrong and false information.”

FIFA said the new defamation offense “exists in most legal systems.”

“The world of football is not immune to conduct that aims to tarnish the reputations of others and … must be sanctioned accordingly,” the Zurich-based governing body said. “The article concerning defamation is not only there to protect FIFA, but also to protect any other person covered by the code who may be subjected to discriminatory or defamatory statements in the context of FIFA events.”

FIFA outlined the “landmark changes” in statement published a day after the AP disclosed how the new code, which was distributed without a public announcement to soccer officials, varied from the previous 2012 edition. FIFA did not provide any written explanation for the changes when the AP first posed a series of questions by email about the new code two weeks ago.

One of the most symbolically significant alterations is the word “corruption” being completed removed from the primary English version of the code. FIFA said this change has “no material impact on the actual infringements that are pursued.”

But cases of bribery, misappropriation of funds and manipulation of matches must now be prosecuted within 10 years of the offense. In the previous edition of the code, prosecution for “bribery and corruption” was not subject to a “limitation period.” American investigators uncovered corruption in soccer going back decades before dozens of officials and entities were indicted in 2015.

“Although the new code has introduced new time limits for certain serious infringements, the ethics committee believes that ten years (or 15 years if an investigation is open) is a sufficient period of time in which to complete the investigation in cases of serious infringements,” FIFA said. “This change will bring more legal certainty to the world of football by ensuring that potential infringements to the code are dealt with in a swift manner.”

Officials now face a minimum five-year ban for bribery.

FIFA said changes to the ethics code “ensure more transparency.” The organization has declined to make ethics judge Vassilios Skouris or prosecutor Maria Claudia Rojas available to answer media questions since Infantino abruptly removed their predecessors from their posts in 2017 with hundreds of cases pending.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe said in a report scrutinizing FIFA governance that Rojas “does not really meet the profile of a ‘prosecutor.'” The European lawmakers also said Infantino has removed independent officials who “might have embarrassed” him by doing their duty.