Colombian Supreme Court sues journalist for defamation

Bogotá, August 27, 2012–Colombia’s Supreme Court must immediately drop an unprecedented criminal defamation complaint against a prominent local columnist who questioned recent actions by the court, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

The criminal chamber of the Supreme Court announced in a statement on Thursday that it would file libel charges against Cecilia Orozco Tascón, who writes a widely read column in the Bogotá daily El Espectador. In the statement, the court also criticized a column by María Jimena Duzán in the weekly Semana magazine.

“It is outrageous that an entire chamber of the Colombian Supreme Court would accuse journalists Cecilia Orozco Tascón and María Jimena Duzán of defamation for opinions they expressed in editorial columns,” said Carlos Lauría, senior program coordinator for the Americas, from New York. “Inter-American jurisprudence says that public officials are subject to higher scrutiny. This is an act of intimidation against journalists by one of the country’s most powerful bodies.”

In an August 22 column, Orozco criticized the courts for removing magistrate Iván Velásquez from his position as chief of the court’s investigative unit. Velásquez was a key figure in uncovering financial and political links between public officials and now-disbanded illegal right-wing paramilitary groups. He came under fierce criticism from both implicated politicians and former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, whose second cousin, former Senator Mario Uribe, was imprisoned in the “parapolitics” scandal, according to news reports.

Orozco questioned the court’s official explanation that Velásquez had simply completed his term, and suggested that his removal was the result of pressure from implicated politicians who wanted to derail the ongoing court investigations. The journalist also suggested that many of the Supreme Court judges had earned their jobs as a result of political favors.

The Supreme Court’s statement denied Orozco’s charges and said her language offended the honor of the court. The statement also said the column was “unfounded,” “twisted,” and “denigrating.” Orozco told Bogotá’s RCN Radio that she stood by “every comma” in her column.

Duzán’s August 19 column criticized a series of changes that she said gave deferential treatment to politicians, as it could result in lighter prison sentences for officials convicted of crimes in comparison with regular citizens. She also criticized the court’s decision to extradite a major paramilitary figure to the United States on drug charges rather than make him face trial in Colombia for the massacre of civilians. She wrote, “It’s clear that for this court drug trafficking is more important than having murdered and massacred civilians and that cooperation with the United States [is more important than] … than the rights of victims to know the truth and have reparation.”

In Thursday’s statement, the Supreme Court denied the allegations, calling the column “biased.” “I stand by what I wrote,” Duzán told CPJ. “The court should respond to these problems rather than trying to put columnists on trial.”

In its statement, the court said it recognized that both columns fell under “the fundamental right to opinion,” but said that “this does not mean that under the pretext of its exercise, [we] should tolerate the abuses of other rights, also of constitutional origin, such as dignity, good name, image and honor.”

The Colombian group Foundation for Freedom of the Press (FLIP) told CPJ that there was no precedent in Colombia for a court chamber to sue for defamation. After Thursday’s announcement by the Supreme Court, FLIP issued a press release stating that the Colombian Constitutional Court had previously ruled that all expression, including any deemed offensive, was protected by the constitution.

In 2011, the Supreme Court upheld defamation provisions in the penal code. The decision runs counter to emerging consensus over more than a decade by courts and legislatures throughout the region that have found that civil remedies provide adequate redress in cases of alleged libel and slander. Jurisprudence by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and declarations by the OAS’s special rapporteur on freedom of expression have repeatedly argued that public officials should be subject to a higher level of scrutiny. Yet some governments in the region continue to use archaic criminal defamation laws to silence dissent.

In May, CPJ launched the campaign “Critics are not Criminals” to help fight the criminalization of speech in the Americas.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The headline and the first two paragraphs of this alert have been corrected to reflect that the Supreme Court filed a complaint against Cecilia Orozco Tascón only.