In Peru, journalists convicted of criminal defamation

New York, May 5, 2005—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns yesterday’s verdict against Sally Bowen, a British freelance journalist who was tried on criminal defamation charges stemming from a single sentence about a high-profile businessman in a 2003 book.

Judge Alfredo Catacora Acevedo found Bowen guilty of criminal defamation and ordered her and her publisher to pay $10,000 Peruvian soles (US$3,000) to businessman Fernando Zevallos. Catacora also sentenced Bowen to one year of probation and restricted her movements both within and outside of the country.

Jorge Santistevan, the journalist’s lawyer and former people’s ombudsman, said the sentence effectively bars Bowen from writing about Zevallos, the Lima-based daily El Comercio quoted.

Bowen said she would appeal the ruling. Zevallos also announced he would file an appeal, claiming the sentence was too lenient.

In his criminal complaint, Zevallos said that Bowen, who is based in the capital, Lima, where she has lived for the last 16 years, and co-author Jane Holligan had irreparably harmed his image in their book, “The Imperfect Spy: The Many Lives of Vladimiro Montesinos.” Proceedings were pending against Holligan, who lives in Scotland.

Zevallos’ lawsuit revolved around a single sentence in the 493-page book, which details the activities of now-imprisoned former intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos. The book quotes an imprisoned U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration informant as saying Zevallos was a drug trafficker with close ties to Montesinos.

Catacora, in reaching his verdict, said Zevallos had never been convicted of a crime, according to news reports.

Yet public accusations of drug dealing and money laundering have dogged Zevallos, founder, former owner, and corporate adviser to the Lima-based AeroContinente airlines. In 2001, he faced charges in Peru for complicity with drug traffickers, but was acquitted the next year for lack of evidence. In 2003, Peru’s Supreme Court of Justice ordered a retrial because judges had not considered all of the relevant evidence during the first trial. Zevallos’ new trial is under way.

In early 2004, U.S. immigration authorities banned Zevallos from re-entering the United States, where he has a home in Miami. In June 2004, the Bush administration identified him as a “significant foreign narcotics trafficker,” and barred U.S. businesses and individuals from doing business with him or his interests. In November 2004, the Treasury Department added AeroContinente’s successor company, Nuevo Continente, to a list of entities suspected of links to drug trafficking. Zevallos has denied the drug trafficking allegations against him.

“The defamation charges against these journalists have no merit, and we are greatly dismayed by this verdict. But the broader issue is that defamation should not be a criminal matter,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “The threat of imprisonment sends a deeply chilling message to all Peruvian journalists.”

In April 2004, Zevallos brought a criminal defamation lawsuit against the owners of El Comercio and its investigative journalists who wrote articles linking Zevallos to drug traffickers.