Bolivian journalist sentenced to prison for defamation

New York, March 15, 2012–A Bolivian journalist who wrote about government corruption was found guilty of defamation by a criminal court in La Paz on Wednesday and sentenced to 30 months in prison. 

Rogelio Peláez, the founder and editor of Larga Vista, a monthly journal of opinion and news analysis, was sued by lawyer Waldo Molina over an article published in the October 2010 edition. In the story, Peláez wrote that Molina had improperly collected nearly half a million dollars in government funds for representing plaintiffs in a corruption case involving a state social security fund, according to news reports.

Molina, who filed the suit shortly after the article was published, disputed the allegations and claimed that his honor and dignity had been damaged. Peláez told CPJ that his article was well documented. His lawyer, Ernesto Vásquez, told CPJ that the judge did not read the article and based his ruling solely on the headline of the story, “Un robo con la ley en la mano,” which can be roughly translated as “Using the law to steal.”

Peláez said he planned to appeal the ruling and that there had been no warrant for his arrest.

“We urge the Bolivian courts to reverse Peláez’s conviction on appeal,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas. “Bolivian authorities must implement reforms to eliminate archaic criminal defamation provisions, which run counter to international standards on freedom of expression.”

The prison sentence handed down to Peláez defies an emerging consensus in Latin America that civil remedies provide adequate redress in cases of alleged defamation. In December 2009, the Costa Rican Supreme Court eliminated prison terms for criminal defamation. One month earlier, the Argentine Congress repealed criminal defamation provisions in its penal code. And in April 2009, Brazil’s Supreme Federal Tribunal annulled the 1967 Press Law, a measure that had imposed harsh penalties for libel and slander.