CPJ submits amicus brief in Matus criminal defamation case

New York, March 23, 2001 — CPJ today submitted an amicus curiae brief to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in the case of Chilean journalist Alejandra Matus.

Matus faces criminal defamation charges in Chile stemming from the April 1999 publication of The Black Book of Chilean Justice, her muckraking investigation of the Chilean judiciary. On October 2, 2000, she filed a complaint with the Washington-based IACHR, which operates under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS), alleging that Chilean authorities had violated her basic human rights.

The Commission has the authority to receive complaints and issue recommendations in such cases.

The brief was prepared for CPJ by the New York law firm Debevoise & Plimpton, whose partners include CPJ board member and prominent First Amendment attorney James C. Goodale.

The Matus case began on April 14, 1999, when Santiago Appeals Court Judge Rafael Huerta banned The Black Book of Chilean Justice one day after it was published. The ban was imposed in response to a suit filed by Supreme Court Justice Servando Jordán under Article 6b of the 1958 State Security Law, which makes it a crime against public order to insult high officials.

After Judge Huerta ordered the seizure of the book’s entire press run, Matus fled to Argentina to avoid arrest. In June 1999, the CEO and chief editor of Matus’ publishing house, Planeta, were briefly detained in connection with the case.

On November 1, 1999, the United States granted Matus political asylum.

CPJ’s brief argues that “public order” is threatened, not promoted, by the criminalization of defamation and that government officials should have no special protection from criticism. The brief further argues that proof of actual malice should be required in all defamation cases, whether criminal or civil, and that the seizure of Matus’ book violated international standards against censorship.

CPJ believes that journalists should never face criminal liability for what they write, broadcast, or publish.

Based on these arguments, the brief urges the Commission to recommend:

  • The rejection of all efforts to criminalize defamation, and in particular the repeal of Article 6(b) of Chile’s State Security Law and similar Chilean statutes;
  • The dismissal of all charges against Matus;
  • The adoption of an “actual malice” standard for all defamation cases involving public officials or public figures;
  • The rejection of all prior censorship, and in particular the repeal of articles 16 and 30 of Chile’s State Security Law;
  • The distribution of The Black Book in Chile without legal penalty, and the return of all copies seized by the government.

Of counsel for the brief were Debevoise & Plimpton’s James C. Goodale, Donald Francis Donovan, Jeremy Feigelson, Erik Christopher Bierbauer, and Andrea Guendelman.
The brief will be available on this site starting Monday morning. A Spanish-language version of the brief is expected to be filed shortly with the IACHR, and will also be posted here at that time.