Colombian editor given suspended prison term

New York, October 13, 2011–A court in Cundinamarca state handed Luis Agustín González, founder and editor of Colombian monthly newspaper Cundinamarca Democrática, a 20-month suspended sentence and a fine of approximately US$5,500 on charges of criminal libel, news reports said today. The sentence stemmed from an editorial González wrote in 2008 that questioned the candidacy of a local politician. 

“We are alarmed that Luis Agustín González was sentenced to prison merely for writing a critical column on a politician,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior coordinator for the Americas. “Journalists should not have to fear jail time for reporting critically. It is time for Colombian authorities to promote legislation that conforms to international standards on freedom of expression and repeals archaic criminal defamation provisions.”

In his December 2008 editorial, González expressed dismay that Maria Leonor Serrano de Camargo, a former mayor, state governor, and national congresswoman in Cundinamarca, had announced her candidacy for the senate in the 2010 elections. The journalist referred to allegations of corruption during Serrano de Camargo’s long career in public office and to well-documented cases of disappearances and assassinations that occurred in 1989 when she was mayor of Fusagasuga, a town about 40 miles southwest of Bogotá.

Serrano de Camargo lost the senate race and later alleged that the editorial had damaged her reputation, Pedro Vaca, González’s lawyer, told CPJ. After a failed attempt to settle the matter out of court, she sued González for libel, the lawyer said. The journalist was sentenced to 20 months in prison, but the sentence was suspended, according to news reports. Vaca told CPJ that the journalist would appeal.

The journalist told CPJ that he will not succumb to self-censorship. “If this can happen to a journalist just an hour and a half from Bogotá, imagine what will happen to journalists much farther out in the provinces?” he said.

In May, the Colombian Supreme Court upheld defamation provisions in the penal code, which runs counter to the emerging consensus in Latin America that civil remedies provide adequate redress in cases of alleged defamation.