In Peru, journalist given suspended prison sentence

New York, November 10, 2011–A Peruvian provincial journalist was found guilty of defamation by a regional court on Monday and received a suspended prison sentence and fine for his reports about alleged corruption, news reports said. 

Teobaldo Meléndez Fachín, a TV and radio reporter in the town of Yurimaguas in the eastern region of Loreto, was handed a three-year suspended prison sentence and ordered to pay 30,000 soles (US$11,047) in damages for his February 20 report on Juan Daniel Mesía Camus, the mayor of Yurimaguas in Alto Amazonas province, according to news reports. The journalist’s story, which criticized Mesía for allegedly misusing a 5.5 million soles (US$2,024,415) government loan, was broadcast by Radio La Ribereña and Ribereñas Noticias TV. Meléndez is now news director and host of “Activa Noticias” on Radio Activa in Yurimaguas.

On July 21, Congress approved changes in the penal code that eliminate jail terms for defamation while increasing fines and community service as sanctions. But the bill awaits the signature of Humala, who assumed office that same month. 

“We condemn the conviction of Teobaldo Meléndez Fachín,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas. “Journalists should not receive criminal sentences for critical reporting. We call on President Ollanta Humala to work with Congress to eliminate prison penalties for defamation and ultimately decriminalize libel and slander entirely.”

In the report, Meléndez alleged that Mesía used the loan for public works projects that benefited his own political allies even though, under Peruvian law, the money should have gone to projects agreed upon with local residents following public hearings.

Mesía said the reports were wrong and filed a complaint in July, saying Meléndez had damaged his reputation. The journalist told CPJ that he stuck by his reporting and would appeal the sentence as he had no way to pay the fine because he earns only 1,500 soles (US$552) per month and must support his wife and three children.

Provincial journalists in Peru have been repeatedly targeted with criminal defamation complaints for reporting on local corruption. In August, CPJ wrote a letter to Peruvian President Ollanta Humala asking him to sign the July bill that eliminates prison terms for defamation. CPJ called the bill an important first step in dismantling archaic criminal defamation laws that are being used by public officials to silence critical reporters.