Judge orders arrest of Semana director

New York, November 21, 2008–A decision to order the arrest of renowned Colombian journalist Alejandro Santos Rubino is an act of censorship, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. A Bogotá judge ordered the arrest of Santos, the director of the national weekly newsmagazine Semana, for failing to follow the court’s instructions in a defamation suit.

Judge Amanda Vargas de Norato of the Penal Circuit of Bogotá issued an arrest warrant for Santos on Thursday after Semana did not follow the exact instructions of a correction in a defamation case decided in August, according to CPJ sources and local news reports. He was charged with contempt of court. Judge Vargas ordered Santos to be held for three days at the police precinct closest to his home or at the headquarters of the Colombian national intelligence service, the Administrative Department of Security, and to pay a fine of 2.7 million pesos (US$1,200), the national daily El Tiempo reported. According to Colombian law, the Superior Tribunal of Bogotá’s Judicial District must review Vargas’ order within the next three days.

Thursday’s decision stems from a defamation suit brought by José Alfredo Escobar Araújo, the former president of Colombia’s Superior Council of the Judiciary, Santos told CPJ. In the suit, Escobar claimed Semana and Santos, as the magazine’s director, had damaged his honor and reputation and invaded his privacy in an April 28 article that described the close friendship between an individual with alleged ties to drug trafficking and various public personalities, including Escobar, according to local news reports.

On August 11, a Bogotá judge ruled in favor of Escobar and ordered Semana to print a correction, which the newsmagazine did, Santos told CPJ. On September 12, the Superior Tribunal of Bogotá’s Judicial District found that the correction was insufficient and ordered a second correction, according to local news reports. Semana published a second correction but did not follow the exact guidelines of the court, which instructed the magazine to publish the changes on its cover. 

“This entire legal process has been deeply flawed and undermines the vitality of the Colombian media by allowing a judge to dictate what can and cannot be published,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ Americas senior program coordinator. “Holding Alejandro Santos in contempt of court could weaken press freedom protections in Colombia. We call on judicial authorities to drop this case.”

Semana has been instrumental in uncovering a series of scandals that have shaken the President Álvaro Uribe Vélez’s administration. In late 2006, the weekly published a series of investigative pieces on the links between far-right paramilitary groups and Colombian officials and politicians. More than 50 politicians and officials were arrested as a result, according to news reports.