Harassed newspaper director loses criminal defamation appeal

New York, January 6, 2006 ­ The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by a decision by the Paraguayan Supreme Court of Justice to uphold the criminal defamation conviction of Aldo Zuccolillo, director of the Paraguayan daily ABC Color.

The Court ordered Zuccolillo on December 28, 2005 to pay a fine of 1.3 billion guaraníes (US$ 200,000), the Asunción-based ABC Color reported. Zuccolillo faces 18 lawsuits over articles his newspaper has published in recent years on official corruption.

The ruling marked the end of a legal battle that started in December 1998 when prosecutors took up the case of senator Juan Carlos Galaverna of the ruling Colorado Party who alleged that Zuccolillo had defamed him by publishing articles that accused him of corruption, embezzlement and abuse of power, according to local press reports. Zuccolillo founded ABC Color in 1967. It was shut down in 1984 under military rule and reopened in 1989 after the fall of dictator Alfredo Stroessner.

“It is alarming that a newspaper that stood up to a military dictatorship is being bullied by a barrage of lawsuits in a democracy,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “We call on Paraguayan authorities to stop harassing ABC Color and scrap criminal defamation laws immediately.”

Carlos Benítez, ABC Color ‘s judicial correspondent, told CPJ that a judge first sentenced Zuccolillo to a heavy fine in April 2001. Since then, ABC Color has appealed twice without success. It plans to refer the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington, D.C. The Commission, which is charged with upholding human rights in the Americas, has the authority to refer cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica whose rulings are binding.

The Paraguayan Supreme Court ruling seems to contradict a recent Inter-American Court ruling on criminal defamation. In September 2004, the Inter-American Court ruled in the case of Paraguayan politician Ricardo Canese that his criminal defamation conviction violated international law. The court declared that the criminal proceedings themselves violated the American Convention on Human Rights, which Paraguay has ratified, because they were not “necessary in a democratic society.”

In an August 2004 ruling that overturned the criminal defamation conviction of Costa Rican journalist Mauricio Herrera Ulloa, the Inter-American Court said that critics of public officials must have “leeway in order for ample debate to take place on matters of public interest.”