Attacks on the Press 1999: Chile

Many observers labeled the 1999 presidential election, in which socialist candidate Ricardo Lagos defeated conservative hopeful Joaquín Lavín, a watershed event. The election was run on the issues and was largely devoid of the ideological polarization that had characterized Chilean politics for decades.

But the press has played a minor role in this emerging political culture. Media ownership is still concentrated in the hands of a few corporations with close ties to the previous military regime. The institutional weakness of the press is reflected in the fact that repealing the state security law does not seem to be a high priority on president Lagos’ agenda. The banning of Alejandra Matus’s The Black Book of Chilean Justice under this decades-old law, which makes it a crime to insult high officials, showed how legal restraints continue to hamper the work of the press in Chile.

Matus spent six years researching The Black Book, a historical exposé of the local judiciary. But her book spent less than two days on Chilean bookshelves. Supreme Court Justice Servando Jordán, who narrowly escaped impeachment on corruption charges in 1997, banned the book and charged Matus under Chile’s state security law. The police confiscated the entire press run on April 14. That same day, Matus boarded a plane to Argentina to avoid being arrested. The CEO and chief editor of Matus’ publishing company, Planeta, were briefly detained in June in connection with the case.

Matus’ case generated an enormous public outcry from all sectors of Chilean society. Legislators trooped to the Supreme Court carrying a huge pair of cardboard scissors, symbolizing the cutoff of information. In a meeting with a CPJ representative, Genaro Arriagada, Chile’s ambassador to the United States, described the state security law as “absurd and unethical,” adding that it “damages the image of our country.”

But the ban ultimately seemed to serve little practical purpose. After The Black Book of Chilean Justice was removed from the shelves, it appeared on the Internet, where it received 20,000 hits in its first day online. Shortly after the book was confiscated, president Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle sent Parliament a bill to modify the law. The bill would revise the infamous Article 6b, which makes insulting high officials an offense against public order. President Frei’s bill would also make it more difficult for authorities to ban publications entirely. The bill was pending before the Senate at year’s end.

Chilean lawyers have criticized the current bill as a violation of international standards. They note that it maintains “disrespect” as an offense under the penal code and imposes higher penalties for a defamation offense committed against a high official. Legal experts also object to the fact that publications could still be banned under the new law.

April 14
Alejandra Matus, free-lancer LEGAL ACTION

A Chilean appeals court judge banned The Black Book of Chilean Justice, a scathing historical exposé of the Chilean judiciary written by investigative journalist Matus.

The book was published on April 13. Supreme Court Justice Servando Jordán subsequently filed a suit before the Santiago appeals court under Article 6b of the state security law, which makes insulting high officials a crime against public order. On April 14, appeals court judge Rafael Huerta launched an investigation against Matus and ordered the seizure of the book’s entire press run. That same day, Matus flew to Argentina in order to avoid arrest; if convicted, she faces up to five years in prison.

In an April 22 letter to President Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, CPJ urged him to press for the amendment of the state security law, which currently allows for the seizure of publications along with the punishment of journalists who dare to insult government officials. CPJ also urged him to act on a petition of the Chamber of Deputies, which solicited Frei’s support in working toward strengthening Chile’s legal protection for freedom of expression.

For the next several months, Matus’ lawyers appealed her case inside Chile and before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. On November 1, the United States granted Matus political asylum.

June 16
Bartolo Ortiz, Planeta LEGAL ACTION
Carlos Orellana, Planeta LEGAL ACTION

Ortiz and Orellana, respectively CEO and editorial director of the Santiago publishing company Planeta, were arrested and charged with violating Chile’s state security law by publishing The Black Book of Chilean Justice, by investigative journalist Alejandra Matus. (See previous case.) Ortiz and Orellana were released on bond two days later; their case was dropped a month later by the Santiago appeals court.

After Matus fled the country to avoid arrest, Judge Rafael Huerta of the appeals court accused Ortiz and Orellana of conspiracy to violate the state security law and issued an arrest warrant against them. Ortiz and Orellana were arrested at the Planeta headquarters and taken to the Capuchinos detention center in Santiago.

In a June 17 letter to President Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, CPJ condemned the arrest of Ortiz and Orellana as a violation of Chile’s constitution, along with Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights. CPJ urged that President Frei make a public commitment to press freedom in Chile.

Ortiz and Orellana were released on bail on June 18. On July 29, the appeals court dismissed their case.