CPJ awardee presents case to Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

New York, November 15, 2001—Argentine journalist and press freedom advocate Horacio Verbitsky this morning petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington, D.C., to suspend an Argentine court decision upholding former president Carlos Saúl Menem’s right to privacy.

The Supreme Court of Argentina ruled that the newsmagazine NOTICIAS violated Menem’s privacy by reporting on his extramarital relationship with Martha Meza, a former schoolteacher who is currently a parliamentary deputy.

Verbitsky is in the United States to receive an International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Among those accompanying Verbitsky to the commission headquarters were CPJ board member Clarence Page, columnist for the Chicago Tribune, and Marilyn Greene, executive director of the World Press Freedom Committee.

In 1996, Menem sued NOTICIAS for invasion of privacy over a series of 1995 articles about his relationship with Meza. NOTICIAS had reported that the former president was the father of Meza’s son, who was born in 1981. Menem gave various gifts to Meza and facilitated her entry into politics, according to the magazine’s national politics editor, Darío Gallo. Menem has never questioned the accuracy of the magazine’s reporting.

Menem lost the case, but an appeals court overturned the ruling in 1998. On September 25 of this year, Argentina’s Supreme Court upheld the 1998 verdict against NOTICIAS. However, the Supreme Court lowered Menem’s damages award from 150,000 pesos (US$150,000) to 60,000 pesos (US$60,000).

This morning Verbitsky, in his capacity as secretary-general of the Argentine press freedom organization PERIODISTAS, presented a 68-page complaint to the executive secretary of the IACHR, Santiago A. Canton. The IACHR is a human rights body of the Organization of American States.

PERIODISTAS and NOTICIAS requested that the IACHR order the Argentine government to suspend the verdict while the commission examines the case. The petition also argued that Argentina violated Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of expression. Finally, the petition asked the IACHR to use its influence with the Argentine government to ensure that the legal system is amended to guarantee this right.

Legislation that would give Argentina one of the strongest legal frameworks for press freedom in the entire region has been stalled for more than a year.

“The suspension of the ruling would convey a strong message to the Argentine Supreme Court that neither criminal defamation laws nor privacy laws can be used to prevent the public from scrutinizing the actions of public officials,” Verbitsky said.

Verbitsky will receive one of four CPJ International Press Freedom awards at a November 20 ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City. The other awardees are Mazen Dana, a Reuters cameraman who covers the West Bank; Geoff Nyarota, the editor of Zimbabwe’s only independent daily newspaper; and Jiang Weipeng, who is currently jailed in China for reporting on corruption. [Click here for more information about the International Press Freedom Awards.]