Attacks on the Press 2001: Chile

After years of wrangling, Chile’s Congress finally passed a press law repealing some of the country’s most draconian defamation and libel statutes. There has been intense international pressure to rid Chile’s legal system of its severe restrictions on the press. But local media also credit President Ricardo Lagos with reviving the reforms, which were stalled by officials hesitant to relinquish laws that shielded them from criticism.

The law scratched certain provisions of Chile’s infamous State Security Law of 1958, including Article 6b, which criminalized insulting high officials. The bill also repealed Article 16, which authorized the suspension of publications and broadcasts, as well as the immediate confiscation of publications deemed offensive, and Article 17, which extended criminal liability to the editors and printers of offending publications. Historically, military courts have heard defamation cases brought by members of the military against civilians; the new legislation repealed that provision.

The law also repealed the 1967 Law on Publicity Abuses, which empowered judges to ban press coverage of court proceedings. While that was a positive step, the repeal also restricted journalists’ right to report on a person’s private life. Journalists who do so can now be prosecuted under the Penal Code, according to J. Ignacio Correa Amunátegui, vice president of the lawyers’ association Asociación de Abogados por las Libertades Públicas. Legislation to review these onerous provisions is stalled in Congress, Correa said.

In addition, the new legislation keeps “disrespect” as an offense under the Penal Code and imposes criminal liability for libel and slander. The law also gives the government the power to determine who is and isn’t a journalist. And while legislation guarantees the right to protect sources, it restricts that right to “recognized” journalists, journalism students doing an internship, recent journalism graduates from accredited universities, publishers, editors, and foreign correspondents. The law also specifies that one must have a journalism degree in order to work as a spokesperson or journalist for state institutions.

The passage of the new press law finally resolved one of Chile’s most notorious defamation suits. Alejandra Matus, who was sued in 1999 and fled her country after her muckraking exposé of the Chilean judiciary, The Black Book of Chilean Justice, was banned under the State Security Law, was able to return to Chile without risking arrest. Her book was also allowed to circulate freely.

But Matus’ case remains pending before the Washington, D.C.­based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), while several criminal defamation laws remain on the books in Chile. On March 23, CPJ submitted an amicus curiae brief to the commission supporting Matus’ complaint. The brief urged the commission to recommend that Chile repeal the offending State Security Law articles, which were soon after eliminated as part of press law reforms, and also recommended that Chile adopt an “actual malice” standard for all defamation cases involving public officials or public figures.

The State Defense Council (CDE) asked that Paula Afani, of the daily La Tercera, be sentenced to five years in prison for allegedly violating the 1995 Drugs Law with a 1999 article on a government investigation into drug trafficking and money laundering. Afani was also charged under the now repealed Law on Publicity Abuses for publishing parts of the secret criminal dossier of the investigation. In early January, Afani learned that she had been acquitted on the first charge. However, the CDE appealed the decision and also filed a writ with the Supreme Court, Afani told CPJ.

The fact that only a few companies–notably COPESA and El Mercurio–own print media outlets remains a significant problem. The Internet news site El (, whose 2000 launch shook up the largely conservative media scene, weathered a tough year and in November was forced to begin charging users’ fees. In a sense, El Mostrador was a victim of its own success. According to one CPJ source, the publication’s daring reports forced the mainstream media to follow suit; because they have better resources, the mainstream press now scoops the publication that had consistently scooped it in 2000.

Meanwhile, stories that touch on the interests of media owners remain off-limits. Said one editor, “If some businessmen get into the media business, it’s because they want to make sure of two things: gain public influence and avoid, at any cost, stories unfavorable to their economic interests.”

January 31

María Eugenia González, El
Rocío Berrios, El
Fabio Díaz, Televisión Española
Gonzalo Mazuela, Primera Lí

An angry crowd of supporters of Gen. Augusto Pinochet confronted González, Berrios, Mazuela, and Díaz while the journalists were covering the presentation of a warrant for house arrest to the former dictator.

The warrant charged Pinochet with masterminding the abduction and killing of 75 political prisoners in a 1973 military operation known as “the Caravan of Death.”

At around 11 p.m., as the journalists were arriving outside the Pinochet family’s country estate in the resort town of Bucalemu, southwest of Santiago, several dozen Pinochet supporters attacked them. According to the daily El Mercurio de Valparaíso, the supporters had been ferried from Santiago in three buses rented by the Pinochet Foundation in a show of support for the general.

The crowd spat on González, who works for the online daily El, and threw water, soil, and stones at her. Military police then came to González’s rescue and escorted her into a police car.

The mob also damaged the car used by González and El reporter Berrios. González and Berrios subsequently filed a complaint with local police.

Díaz, a correspondent for Spanish TV channel Televisión Española, was kicked, insulted, and pelted with eggs. He was apparently targeted for his Spanish nationality as well as for being a journalist.

Spain became the object of the Pinochet sympathizers’ wrath in October 1998, when Spanish judge Baltazar Garzón charged Pinochet with crimes against humanity and issued an international warrant for his arrest while the former dictator was visiting London. Pinochet returned to Chile in March 2000 after the British House of Lords ruled him medically unfit to stand trial.

Mazuela, who works for the online daily Primera Lí, was reporting via cell phone on the attack against Díaz when the protesters approached and started kicking him. The three journalists suffered only minor injuries.

In addition to attacking journalists and accusing them of anti-Pinochet bias, the crowd chanted insults against members of the ruling coalition and against Chilean judge Juan Guzmán, who had issued the house arrest warrant.

February 5

Enrique Alvarado, El Metropolitano
Javier Urrutia, El Metropolitano
Mireya Muñoz, El Metropolitano
Patricio Ulloa, El Metropolitano
Pablo Valdés, El Metropolitano

Chilean senator and businessman Francisco Javier Errázuriz filed suit against Alvarado, editor of the daily El Metropolitano; Urrutia, editor of the paper’s business section; and photographer Muñoz under Article 6b of Chile’s State Security Law (LSE). Starting January 27, El Metropolitano had published a series of articles linking Errázuriz to a scandal involving forged documents. Muñoz photographed the office of a notary allegedly involved in the scandal.

On January 28, Errázuriz called Urrutia and asked that his version of the events be published in a front-page article of the same length as the paper’s exposé, according to the Argentine press freedom organization PERIODISTAS.

The Peruvian press freedom organization Instituto Prensa Y Sociedad (IPYS) reported that Errázuriz sent three letters to El Metropolitano on Senate letterhead. One of the letters, dated February 19, noted, “All those in the public eye have the duty to make use of the LSE, precisely in order to protect the state and its spokespeople against those who commit an outrage against press freedom, such an important pillar of our society.”

On March 19, the journalists testified before an Appeals Court judge, as required by the LSE. Meanwhile, however, the Chamber of Deputies was taking steps to abolish parts of the law that were formally repealed in late spring.

On March 22, Errázuriz filed a fresh complaint against the journalists with the Third Criminal Court, this time under criminal defamation provisions of the Penal Code, IPYS reported. In addition to Alvarado, Urrutia, and Muñoz, the new suit added El Metropolitano‘s president, Patricio Ulloa, and editorial board member Pablo Valdés as defendants.

At the beginning of April, the parties tried unsuccessfully to settle their dispute. Apparently, Errázuriz would only agree to withdraw the new complaint if the paper published a front-page article denying everything it had written about him, according to IPYS.

CPJ was unable to determine the outcome of the case by press time.

August 23

Alejandra Matus, free-lancer

The Supreme Court of Justice refused to consider journalist and author Alejandra Matus’ appeal against the seizure of The Black Book of Chilean Justice, a muckraking exposé of the Chilean judiciary that was banned more than two years ago.

The Chilean judiciary seemed unwilling to lift the ban even though a new press law, signed in May, repealed the infamous articles of the State Security Law under which Matus was charged with criminal defamation and The Black Book was outlawed.

Matus’ troubles began on April 14, 1999, when Santiago Appeals Court judge Rafael Huerta banned her book in response to a suit filed by Supreme Court justice Servando Jordán under Article 6(b) of the State Security Law, which made it a crime against public order to insult high officials.

After Judge Huerta ordered the seizure of the book’s entire print run, Matus flew to Argentina to avoid imprisonment. Six months later, the United States granted Matus political asylum.

Matus filed a complaint with the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), alleging that Chilean authorities had violated her basic human rights. On March 23, 2001, CPJ submitted an amicus curiae brief to the commission in support of Matus’ complaint. 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.

CPJ’s brief argued 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 argued 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.

Based on these arguments, the brief urged 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.

In April, the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate passed a law on regulating “Freedoms of Opinion and Information and the Practice of Journalism.” Among other provisions, the new law repealed articles 6(b) and 16 of the State Security Law. President Ricardo Lagos signed the bill into law on May 18.

On June 2, Matus’ brother and lawyer, Jean Pierre Matus, requested that the Santiago Appeals Court close the case, drop the detention order against Matus, lift the ban on her book, and release the impounded copies.

The Matuses told CPJ that on June 29, Appeals Court judge Rubén Ballesteros dismissed the parts of the case stemming from the State Security Law. However, he did not overturn other charges, including those based on the Law on Publicity Abuses, even though the new press law repealed that statute entirely.

In the same June 29 decision, Judge Ballesteros upheld the detention order and book ban, pending possible challenges to his ruling dismissing charges stemming from the State Security Law.

The next day, Jean Pierre Matus filed a writ asking the Santiago Appeals Court to lift the detention order. On July 6, the court unanimously ruled in Matus’ favor, enabling her to return to Chile.

When Matus arrived for a weeklong visit on July 14, she and her brother filed another writ requesting that the Appeals Court lift the ban on her book. On July 25, the court declared the writ inadmissible. Jean Pierre filed a complaint against that decision with the Supreme Court on July 31.

In an August 6 alert, CPJ executive director Ann Cooper said, “It seems as if some members of the Chilean judiciary are hanging on to any excuse to continue this unjustified case against Alejandra Matus. Clearly, the case should be dismissed in its entirety and the ban on The Black Book of Chilean Justice lifted.”

On August 23, the Chilean Supreme Court also declared the writ inadmissible.

In an August 29 alert, Cooper said, “The Supreme Court’s August 23 decision certainly casts a shadow over the recent repeal of some of Chile’s most notorious and restrictive press provisions.”

Meanwhile, Justice Jordán filed an appeal on June 30 against the partial dismissal of the case. Jean Pierre Matus then filed an appeal on July 25 urging the judge to dismiss the case entirely.

On September 17, the Appeals Court rejected both Jordán’s and the Matus’ appeal, Jean Pierre Matus said. On September 29, Jean Pierre Matus asked Ballesteros to end the book ban. On October 19, Ballesteros ruled on the request, allowing the book to be sold; dismissing State Security Law charges faced by Bartolo Ortiz and Carlos Orellana, CEO and chief editor of Editorial Planeta, respectively; and temporarily dismissing the charges under other laws faced by Matus, Ortiz, and Orellana.

Matus went back to live in Chile on November 15, she told CPJ. That day, the Appeals Court confirmed Ballesteros’ decision, according to Jean Pierre Matus. From that day until December 12, he said, the file was “lost,” but on December 13, Ballesteros authorized the return of Editorial Planeta’s impounded books, which happened on December 17.

October 29

Pablo Solís, El
Luis Cáceres, El

Solís and Cáceres, reporter and photographer, respectively, for the online newspaper El (, were attacked by a group of Mapuche Indians, apparently in retaliation for the site’s articles on alleged financial irregularities involving Mapuche community leaders.

The journalists were covering an afternoon meeting between Mapuche leaders and Alejandra Krauss, minister of Cooperation and Planning, in downtown Santiago. El reported that when the meeting ended around 4:45 p.m., some 20 Mapuche Indians assaulted the journalists and destroyed Cáceres’ digital camera.

The attackers expressed anger about El‘s reports on alleged corruption within the National Corporation for Indigenous Development, the government agency for native Chilean affairs. The police then arrived and restored order.

The journalists chose not to file a police complaint about the incident.

December 1

Eduardo Yáñez Morel

The Supreme Court filed a complaint against Yáñez, a regular panelist on Chilevisión’s debate show “El Termó-Metro,” for “disrespect,” under Articles 263 and 264 of the Penal Code. Yáñez faces up to five years in prison if convicted.

The complaint stemmed from a November 27 episode of the show in which Yáñez described the judiciary as “immoral, cowardly, and corrupt” for not providing compensation to a woman who, it was revealed during the broadcast, had been imprisoned for a crime she did not commit. Yáñez, a businessman and environmental activist, also said the judiciary had shown “little manliness” in failing to apologize for the miscarriage of justice.

On November 30, the Supreme Court asked its then-president, Hernán Álvarez, to file a criminal complaint accusing Yáñez of “disrespect.” Although Article 6b of the State Security Law, Chile’s most infamous “disrespect” provision, was repealed in late spring 2001, government officials still have more legal protection against criticism than ordinary citizens.

In early January, the judge in charge of the case, Juan Manuel Muñoz Pardo, gave the parties 10 working days to reach a settlement. But the new Supreme Court president, Mario Garrido Montt, repeatedly refused to meet with Yáñez, who wanted to offer his apologies. According to a January 16 article in El Mercurio, Garrido contended that the judiciary deserved respect like any person. “If anyone refers to the judiciary with insults, we won’t doubt to act in the same way,” Garrido said.

On January 15, Judge Muñoz initiated proceedings against Yáñez and the panelist was detained overnight. The next day, the Santiago Appeals Court confirmed Judge Muñoz’s decision to grant Yáñez a 100,000 peso (US$150) bail.

Yáñez’s attorney announced that he would fight the case on constitutional grounds. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has interceded on Yáñez’s behalf, asking the Chilean government to provide it with information on the case.