Honduran journalist sentenced to 10 years in prison for defamation

New York, March 17, 2016 — Honduran authorities should drop all criminal charges against journalist David Romero Ellner, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. A court in the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa on Monday sentenced Romero, who is free pending appeal, to 10 years in prison on charges he defamed a former prosecutor. CPJ called on authorities not to challenge his appeal and to cease pursuing criminal charges against all journalists for defamation.

The Fourth Chamber of the Honduras’ Sentencing Court, led by Judge Geraldina Mejía Rivera, on Monday sentenced Romero, director of Radio Globo and Globo TV, to one year and eight months in prison for each of six charges that he defamed former Honduran prosecutor Sonia Inez Gálvez Ferrari in his journalistic work, for a total sentence of 10 years in prison. The same court on November 13, 2015, had convicted Romero of six of the 15 charges against him, according to news reports. Romero told CPJ that he is also prohibited from talking about Gálvez on television or radio.

“The galling sentence against David Romero Ellner violates a growing regional and international consensus that defamation should not be a criminal matter,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas. “For more than a decade, courts and legislatures throughout the region have found that civil remedies provide adequate redress in cases of alleged libel and slander.”

Romero has 20 days to appeal. Speaking to CPJ by telephone, the journalist said he intends to do so.

The plaintiff in the defamation case, Gálvez, was also an attorney in an earlier case against Romero in which the journalist was convicted of raping his daughter. Romero, who was a Liberal Party legislator at the time, was stripped of his parliamentary immunity and sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2004. Romero told CPJ that he was released after five years for good behavior.

The court found that Romero had defamed Gálvez by insulting her and improperly reporting on her private life to take revenge for her role in his prior conviction. Romero maintained in court that his reports were on influence peddling, and were in the public interest. Gálvez is married to Assistant Attorney General Rigoberto Cuéllar, as affirmed in court documents from the defamation trial, which CPJ has reviewed.

Romero’s journalistic work has frequently alleged corruption in President Juan Orlando Hernández’s administration. In 2015, he reported on alleged corruption in the country’s social security administration, including the use of funds from the system to finance the 2013 campaign of President Hernández. At the time, Hernández promised an investigation into the allegations.

In a July 2015 statement published by the daily newspaper La Tribuna, the Office of the Presidency denied allegations that it had any role in the prosecution of Romero for defamation.

Also in July 2015, Judge Agüero Echenique–who, before he retired, had served on the panel that tried Romero–told reporters that Teodoro Bonilla, a member of the Judicial Council, which has the power to appoint and remove judges, had pressured him on behalf of the president to convict Romero and to impose a tough sentence. Bonilla vehemently denied those accusations, in remarks carried by El Heraldo.

Globo TV and its sister radio station have run into trouble before. In December 2013, Juan Carlos Argeñal Medina, the Globo correspondent in the state of El Progreso, was murdered in unclear circumstances, according to CPJ research. In 2014, an appeals court banned journalist Julio Ernesto Alvarado, also of Globo TV, from practicing journalism for 16 months, following a criminal defamation complaint.

Honduras is one of many countries in the Americas that continue to use criminal defamation laws to silence dissent, according to a comparative study of defamation laws prepared for CPJ by the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLP in collaboration with the Thomson Reuters Foundation launched last month.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The final paragraph has been modified to correct the timing of the launch of the comparative study on defamation laws.