Although the Uruguayan media did not face significant restrictions in 2004, civil and criminal defamation lawsuits against journalists increased during the year. At least 15 journalists were charged with criminal defamation and 10 with civil defamation, an increase compared with recent years. Under Uruguayan law, defamation is a criminal offense and carries prison sentences of up to three years.
While the media in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, work relatively free of government intervention, journalists in the country’s interior complain that judicial decisions have restricted their ability to disseminate news, according to the journalists association Asociación de la Prensa Uruguaya (Association of the Uruguayan Press).
In April, Marlene Vaz, an editor and columnist for the Río Branco-based weekly Opción Cero (Option Cero), in Cerro Largo Department, was convicted of defamation and libel and sentenced to 20 months in prison. A judge later suspended her sentence and ordered her to remain under police surveillance for one year, meaning she must ask authorities for permission each time she leaves Río Branco and must notify them whenever she changes her address.
The charges stemmed from a series of satirical columns in Opción Cero between May 2001 and June 2002. In July 2002, lawyer Jorge Antonio Rivas, who is also a member of Río Branco’s City Council, filed a suit against Vaz, claiming that her columns had offended “his honor.” Rivas claimed that Vaz made several references about him and his wife in a column called “Cortitas” (Shorts) and used his nickname, “Gato” (Cat), to attack him. Rivas said that Vaz implied that he had urinated in the local council building, consumed alcohol and drugs, and was corrupt. Vaz told CPJ her columns are satirical and that she never made such references to Rivas.
On June 9, Vaz appealed the verdict. While an appeals court dismissed the defamation charges, it upheld the slander charges after ruling that Vaz’s columns had invaded Rivas’ private life. The court reduced the sentence to 10 months suspended but ordered Vaz to remain under police supervision until April 22, 2005. Under Uruguayan law, defamation is the offense of injuring another person’s reputation by false statements, while slander is considered a more general offense.
Civil defamation lawsuits are also on the rise. In several cases, journalists were hit with large fines for “moral and material damages,” even though the veracity of their reporting was not challenged. Judges increasingly admit such lawsuits in court and rule against the press.
In a positive development, three suspects were arrested in April in connection with the nonfatal shooting of journalist Ricardo Gabito Acevedo, who was shot in the leg in late 2003. Acevedo, a sports reporter with the daily La República (The Republic) and the TV station Tveo Canal 5, had reported extensively on corruption in Uruguayan soccer. While the alleged gunman remained incarcerated, the two suspected masterminds, who targeted the journalist for his corruption reporting, were released in August and September. At year’s end, the three were on trial.
The Uruguayan press reported freely on the October 31 presidential election, which brought a leftist politician to power for the first time in the country’s history. Tabaré Vázquez, a socialist doctor, won with more than 50 percent of the vote. In August, Congress passed a law banning political advertising in print media, radio, and television in the month preceding the election. According to local journalists, the law infringed on the right to information and undermined the transparency of the election because the media were not able to publish political advertising, even in cases when the ads contained information considered of public interest.