Argentine radio journalist convicted on criminal slander charge

New York, September 4, 2007—The criminal slander conviction of an Argentine radio journalist is alarming and should be overturned on appeal, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Monday’s ruling, by a judge in northwestern Salta province, also bars commentator Sergio Poma from working for one year.

Judge Héctor Martínez handed Poma, owner of local radio station FM Noticias and host of the news program “Código de Investigación,” a one-year suspended prison sentence on a criminal slander complaint brought by the local governor, Juan Carlos Romero, according to local news reports and CPJ interviews. The judge also ordered that the sentence be published in all local media outlets, the journalist told CPJ. Poma said his lawyers have appealed the conviction.

The case stems from several corruption accusations aired on Poma’s daily news program “Usted Opina” in 2004. In June of that year, Romero filed a slander complaint, the journalist told CPJ.

Poma told CPJ he has repeatedly cited alleged government corruption and alleged links between local politicians and drug traffickers in Salta province, which borders Bolivia about 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) northwest of Buenos Aires. Since 2001, Poma said, he has received several telephone death threats and seen the radio station’s equipment vandalized.

Poma said he has three other criminal slander cases pending: one filed by Romero, another by Romero’s brother, and a third by the governor’s secretary. All are based on Poma’s allegations of government corruption, the journalist said.

“Politicians and public officials in a democracy such as Argentina should not use outdated criminal defamation laws to shield themselves from criticism and scrutiny,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We condemn the prison sentence handed down to Sergio Poma and call for the conviction to be overturned on appeal.”

There is a growing consensus among international bodies that civil remedies provide adequate redress for press offenses. On April 12, Mexican President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa signed a bill that effectively eliminated criminal libel and slander at the federal level, directing such complaints to civil courts. Mexico joined El Salvador as the first countries in Latin America to repeal defamation as a criminal offense.

Though imprisonment for press offenses has fallen into disuse in the Americas, prosecution on criminal defamation charges remains common. A landmark 2004 ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has led a number of politicians in the region to consider reforms that would wipe libel entirely from the criminal law books.

In the 2004 case, the Inter-American Court overturned the 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 conviction violated the reporter’s right to free expression, and it ordered the Costa Rican government to pay damages. The court’s president, Judge Sergio García Ramírez, wrote a separate, concurring opinion that questioned the basis for criminal defamation and suggested that such laws be repealed.