Journalist convicted on defamation charges

New York, March 3, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns Tuesday’s criminal defamation conviction of Mexican journalist Isabel Arvide for a 2001 article alleging links between state officials and organized crime.

Judge Octavio Rodríguez Gaytán, of the Second Penal Court in the state of Chihuahua, sentenced Arvide to one year in prison and ordered her to pay a fine of 200,000 pesos (U$19,000) in damages, the Mexican press said. The judge suspended the prison term and and ruled that damages would be covered by bail Arvide posted when she was first detained, according to press reports. Arvide must report monthly to state security officials during the one-year term.

Arvide will seek a court order to void the conviction on constitutional grounds, her lawyer, Jorge Asbun Castillo, told CPJ.

The charges against Arvide—a Mexico City-based journalist and author who has written many exposés about drug traffickers, corruption, and violence—stem from a June 2, 2001, article published on the journalist’s own Web site and in the Mexico City daily Milenio. The piece alleged that a number of state government officials, including former state attorney general Jesús José Solís Silva, had organized a drug cartel in Chihuahua. Solís filed a criminal complaint in December 2002, saying the story defamed him.

Arvide was detained on March 4, 2003, in Chihuahua City. Twenty Chihuahua state police agents descend on her at a local restaurant, took her in custody, and placed her in isolation, where she was held for almost 24 hours before being released on bail.

Since then, Arvide was required to appear every two weeks before Judge Rodríguez Gaytán. The associated travel costs and high legal expenses strained her resources and hampered her journalistic work.

“We’re utterly dismayed by this verdict and by the fact that a former state attorney general brought criminal charges in what clearly should be a civil matter,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “Criminally prosecuting a journalist for doing her job sends a chilling message to all Mexican journalists, and it is out of step with the region’s growing legal consensus that allegations of defamation are not a criminal issue.”

Laws that criminalize speech that does not incite lawless violence are incompatible with the right to free expression as established under Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights, which Mexico has ratified. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) stated in 1994: “Considering the consequences of criminal sanctions and the inevitable chilling effect they have on freedom of expression, criminalization of speech can only apply in those exceptional circumstances when there is an obvious and direct threat of lawless violence.”

Though imprisonment for press offenses has fallen into disuse in the Americas, prosecution on criminal defamation charges remains common. In August 2004, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights announced a ruling overturning the 1999 criminal defamation conviction of Costa Rican journalist Mauricio Herrera Ulloa, a reporter with the daily La Nación. The Costa Rica-based court ruled that the sentence violated his right to free expression and ordered Costa Rica to pay damages to him. The court’s president, Judge Sergio García Ramírez, wrote a separate, concurring opinion questioning the criminalization of defamation and suggesting that such laws be repealed.