Chilean Journalist Alejandra Matus Prosecuted by Chilean Government

April 23, 1999 12:00 AM ET

April 23, 1999

His Excellency Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle
President of the Republic of Chile
Palacio de la Moneda
Santiago, CHILE


Your Excellency,

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is writing to strongly condemn the prosecution of investigative journalist Alejandra Matus and the confiscation of all copies of her book "The Black Book of Chilean Justice."

Matus' book, a historical exposé of the Chilean judiciary's lack of independence, was launched on April 13. Supreme Court Judge Servando Jordán subsequently filed a suit before the Santiago Appeals Court invoking Article 6b of the State Security Law, which makes it a crime against public order to insult high authorities. On April 14, Appeals Court Judge Rafael Huerta initiated a prosecution against Matus, and ordered the seizure of the entire press run of the book. If Matus is convicted, she faces up to five years in prison.

As an organization of journalists dedicated to the defense of press freedom worldwide, CPJ considers these actions a grave attack on press freedom. They violate Article 19 (12) of Chile's Constitution, which guarantees the freedom to express opinions and to inform, and which prohibits prior censorship.

They also infringe on the first two paragraphs of Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights, which contain the statements: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought and expression. This right includes freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds... " and "The exercise of the right provided for in the foregoing paragraph shall not be subject to prior censorship . . ." In Martorell v. Chile (Case 11.230), the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights held that the Supreme Court's 1993 decision banning Francisco Martorell's book "Diplomatic Impunity" constituted unwarranted censorship, in violation of Article 13.

It is CPJ's position that journalists should never be jailed for their journalistic work. A functioning democracy depends on the free exchange of ideas. Thus, a reporter's good-faith belief in the accuracy of the information published should be a sufficient shield against liability. In instances where a plaintiff can demonstrate malice on the part of a journalist-in other words, that a journalist knew or should have known at the time of publication that the information in a story was inaccurate-civil litigation should provide adequate redress for the aggrieved party.

The criminalization of criticism of public officials constitutes a "contempt law" ( ley de desacato). The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has stated that contempt laws violate "the most fundamental principle of a democratic system, which subjects the government to the scrutiny of citizens, so that abuse of power can be prevented or controlled." As part of the resolution in the case of Verbitsky v. Argentina (case 11.012), the commission held that contempt statutes violate the freedom of expression guarantees granted under inter-American law. The commission urged all countries to work toward their elimination.

CPJ believes that journalists should have absolute liberty to report on government investigations, particularly those in which public officials are alleged to be involved in wrongdoing. An informed and robust public debate will inevitably expose government officials to caustic criticism. By making criticism of public officials a crime against the state, the State Security Law has a chilling effect on press freedom in Chile and constitutes a blemish on Chile's democratic development.

We therefore urge you to use the power of your office to push for the reform of the articles of the State Security Law that currently make criticism of authorities a crime and permit the seizure of publications. We are aware that the Chamber of Deputees has solicited your support in working toward strengthening Chile's legal protection for freedom of expression. We urge you to act on this initiative and to work toward the repeal of the provisions that violate both national and international law.

Sincerely,


Ann K. Cooper
Executive Director





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His Excellency Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle
President of the Republic of Chile
Palacio de la Moneda
Santiago, CHILE

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