CPJ calls on Peru to decriminalize defamation as two journalists face court

April 19, 2016 10:14 AM ET

Bogotá, Colombia, April 19, 2016--A Peruvian journalist received a suspended jail sentence Monday and was ordered to pay damages to former President Alan García Pérez after being convicted of criminal defamation, according to news reports.

A Lima judge sentenced Fernando Valencia, the former editor of the Lima daily Diario 16, to a 20-month suspended prison sentence and ordered him to pay 100,000 sols (US$30,580) in damages to García, who served as president from 1985-90 and from 2006-11.

In a separate case, Rafael León Rodríguez, a journalist, author, and columnist for the Lima-based weekly newsmagazine Caretas, could be sent to prison next month and ordered to pay damages over a satirical column he wrote about an editor at the country's leading newspaper, according to news reports and CPJ interviews.

"We urge Peruvian authorities to repeal the country's criminal defamation laws. Cases such as the ones against Fernando Valencia and Rafael León Rodríguez constitute a clear violation of the journalists' right to express opinions about matters in the public interest," said Carlos Lauría, CPJ's senior program coordinator for the Americas. "The use of criminal penalties to punish journalists violates a growing regional and international consensus that defamation should not be a criminal matter."

García filed a complaint in 2013 against Valencia for damaging his reputation over a front-page story that year, according to reports. In the story, current President Ollanta Humala criticized previous governments for failing to complete public works projects, allegedly due to corruption. Although García was not named in the piece, Diario 16's front-page layout included the former president's photo. A judge initially exonerated Valencia, but García appealed and the appeals court ruled in the former president's favor.

Valencia's defense attorney, Carlos Rivera Paz, told the news outlet last year that the complaint was designed to intimidate Diario 16 and other media outlets critical of García. Since he left office in 2011 García has faced numerous corruption investigations but the former president has not been charged and has denied any wrongdoing. Diario 16, which had a reputation for being critical of García during his presidency, closed last year due to financial problems.

"This is a disastrous day for journalism and for freedom of expression," Rivera told reporters after the sentencing. The lawyer said he plans to appeal the sentence.

In León's case, the Caretas journalist is facing a criminal defamation case brought in 2014 by Martha Meier Miró Quesada. At the time, Meier was the general editor and a columnist for the daily El Comercio, which is owned by the Miró Quesada family.

León has been ordered to appear before Judge Susan Coronado Zegarra in Lima on May 3. In the Peruvian criminal court system, such orders nearly always mean that the judge has reached a guilty verdict and will read the sentence, according to León's lawyer, Roberto Pereira. He told the Lima newspaper La República that if convicted, his client could face up to three years in prison and be ordered to pay damages of up to US$1.53 million. His paper is not facing any charges. León's lawyer told CPJ he will appeal if the journalist is convicted.

The legal dispute stems from a piece León published in June 2014, in response to a column Mier wrote for her paper, El Comercio. Meier filed a defamation complaint against León, claiming that she had been insulted and humiliated by his column. The trial ended more than 10 months ago, and León's lawyers have complained about the delay between the trial ending and the judge announcing a ruling.

Meier, who is part of the family that owns El Comercio, was fired by the paper last year over a different controversial column she wrote. During the trial she said León's column had contributed to her dismissal, according to the Lima-based Institute for Press and Society (IPYS). Meier did not respond to CPJ's request for comment.

"It's crazy for journalists to be suing each other," León told reporters last week. "If we can get sent to jail for expressing our opinions, we are in deep trouble."

In a letter to the judge handling León's case, IPYS wrote that the right of journalists to express critical opinions about issues of public interest is protected by the Peruvian constitution, a large body of international jurisprudence, and by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which is part of the Organization of American States. IPYS said in its letter that there had been many irregularities and inexplicable delays in the case, and that it should be thrown out.

CPJ has documented how an alarming use of outdated criminal defamation provisions to target critical journalists has threatened free expression in Peru. In February, CPJ traveled to Peru to release a comparative study of defamation laws in the Americas, "Critics Are Not Criminals." After the launch of the study, which was prepared for CPJ by the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLP in collaboration with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the president of the Peruvian congress proposed removing defamation penalties from the criminal code.

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