Supreme Court upholds defamation decision

New York, October 31, 2008–The Chilean Supreme Court found journalist Víctor Gutiérrez guilty of criminal defamation on October 28, and sentenced him to a suspended prison sentence. 

The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns criminal convictions for defamation as out of line with international standards for free expression.

The high court sentenced Gutiérrez to a 61-day suspended prison sentence, and ordered him to pay a 240 pesos (US$358) fine as well 30 million pesos (US$46,000) in damages to Cecilia Bolocco, a former Miss Universe and ex-wife of former Argentine President Carlos Menem, who Gutiérrez is accused of defaming, The Associated Press reported. Gutiérrez told the Chilean national daily El Mercurio that he was planning to take his case to the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The case stems from appearances Gutiérrez made in August 2001 on the television programs “Día a día” (Day to Day) on Televisión Nacional de Chile (TVN) and “Memoria” (Memory) on the Argentine national station Azul TV, alleging that Bolocco had an affair with Brazilian writer Paulo Coehlo while she was already in a relationship with Menem, according to reports in the Chilean and international press. In August 2005, Santiago’s 20th Penal Court found Gutiérrez guilty of defamation, and on May 7, Santiago’s Appeal Court ratified the sentence, the AP reported.

“Defamation cases should be heard in civil courts, not criminal courts that hand down jail sentences,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “The verdict against Víctor Gutiérrez sends a chilling message to the Chilean press that writing about public figures can result in a prison term.”

Laws that criminalize speech are incompatible with the rights established under Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights, which Chile has ratified. As 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.”