In a major advance for press freedom in the Americas, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found in September that a 1994 criminal defamation conviction in Paraguay violated international law. The court ruled that the criminal proceedings themselves violated the American Convention on Human Rights because they were an “excessive limitation in a democratic society.”
The court is an arm of the Organization of American States (OAS), and its decisions are binding on nations that have accepted its jurisdiction. The ruling, coupled with an August decision overturning a criminal libel conviction against a Costa Rican reporter, appeared to signal a broad shift against criminal defamation laws in the Americas.
The Paraguayan case dated to August 1992, when presidential candidate Ricardo Canese questioned rival Juan Carlos Wasmosy about ties to former dictator Alfredo Stroessner. In statements to the local press, Canese said that Wasmosy, who went on to become president, was Stroessner’s front man in a construction partnership that had been awarded a government contract to build a power plant.
Business partners whom Canese had not named in his statements filed complaints alleging libel and defamation, and a judge sentenced him to four months in prison and fined him US$7,500. After a series of appeals that reached the Paraguayan Supreme Court, Canese took the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the human rights monitoring arm of the OAS. In June 2002, the commission asked the Inter-American Court to declare that Paraguay had violated Canese’s right to freedom of thought and expression, as well as other rights guaranteed by the American Convention on Human Rights.
The Inter-American Court, in a decision made public September 14, ruled that Canese’s prosecution and conviction violated Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of expression. The court found that the criminal proceedings and sentence “constituted an unnecessary and excessive sanction for statements made in the context of the electoral campaign, in reference to another candidate for the presidency and matters of public interest.”
Just weeks before the Canese decision, Vice President Luis Castiglioni stated his intention to file a criminal complaint against Jorge Torres Romero, a reporter with the Asunción daily Última Hora (Last Hour). A July 12 article by Torres had explored Castiglioni’s alleged links to a construction company that had been awarded a government contract. The newspaper stood by the article, and Castiglioni did not immediately follow up on his threat.
Relations between the press and President Nicanor Duarte Frutos have been tense since he took office in August 2003 but have not translated into official restrictions on journalists. Still, organized crime groups and dishonest officials have attacked journalists, while the government’s failure to rein in widespread corruption and insecurity has made citizens uneasy.
In November, four unidentified individuals abducted the son of Bernardo Agustti, a reporter with Última Hora, drugged him, and held him for about three hours in apparent retaliation for Agustti’s reporting on organized crime. Before releasing Agustti’s son, his captors instructed him to tell his father to stop covering drug trafficking and car theft.
Although access to public information is guaranteed under Article 28 of the constitution, journalists say information is routinely restricted. Legislative efforts to free the flow of public information were rebuffed in 2001 and 2002, and a new attempt was launched in 2004. A committee of senators and parliamentary deputies, advised by civil-society organizations, worked throughout 2004 to draft a bill to improve public access, but no legislation had been introduced in the Congress by year’s end.