Bolivian President Evo Morales attends a conference at the Vatican, April 15, 2016. (AP/Andrew Medichini)
Bolivian President Evo Morales attends a conference at the Vatican, April 15, 2016. (AP/Andrew Medichini)

Bolivian president’s criminal defamation suit threatens press freedom

New York, August 4, 2016 – Bolivian President Evo Morales should immediately drop a criminal defamation suit against a journalist that could have a chilling effect on press freedom in the country, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Bolivian criminal court justice René Delgado announced yesterday that he would hear a case Morales filed against journalist Humberto Vacaflor.

Vacaflor told CPJ that he received notice of Morales’ defamation complaint on July 27 and that he faces criminal charges in relation to comments that he made when he appeared on the July 4 episode of the TV Católica program “Encontrados” (Found). During the interview, Vacaflor accused Morales of being connected to the murder of police officer David Andrade and his wife Graciela Alfaro in 2000, according to regional press reports. A 2002 judicial investigation found no evidence Morales, who was a legislator and head of a coca growers’ union at the time of the murders, was involved in the crime.

“Rather than engaging in petty lawsuits, President Evo Morales should work with the Bolivian legislature to abolish all criminal penalties for defamation,” CPJ Advocacy Director Courtney Radsch said from Washington. “The highest elected official in a country should not use antiquated criminal laws to punish anyone for speech. Presidents should expect and have a high tolerance for criticism and public accusations.”

Vacaflor told CPJ by telephone that he publishes on weekly news site Siglo 21 and that he writes columns that are carried by at least six Bolivian newspapers, including El Deber and El Diario. This year, Vacaflor received a press freedom prize from Bolivia’s National Press Association.

The judge in the case told journalists that Vacaflor did not appear at a scheduled court hearing yesterday. The journalist now has 10 days to present exculpatory evidence before the court will set a trial date, according to a report by Agencia EFE.

Vacaflor told CPJ that he did not appear at the hearing because he was afraid he would be detained, and because he hoped the president might drop the case in response to negative coverage from the news media.

Vacaflor told CPJ that he wants to face trial before a special jury designated to handle cases involving the press. Under Bolivia’s 1925 press law, journalists accused of libel or slander may, in some cases, face trial before a body of jurors, selected by the mayor, instead of facing trial in a criminal court. While the press jury can levy fines, it is generally oriented towards coming to agreements between the parties, the journalist told CPJ. He added that his desire to appear before the press jury was another reason why he did not attend the hearing in criminal court.

The lawyer identified in press reports as Morales’s representative in this case, Alex Monasterios Orihuela, did not respond to CPJ’s phone calls or attempts to reach him via social media today. No one at the Ministry of the Presidency answered CPJ’s phone calls, and an email sent to the ministry in the morning was not answered by late afternoon, local time.

CPJ has closely followed the state of criminal defamation laws in the Americas for over a decade. In 2000, CPJ began an intense campaign to eliminate these laws in the region. These efforts were widely successful and helped shape an emerging international consensus, including within the Inter-American system, that criminal defamation violates international freedom of expression standards.

CPJ research has nonetheless shown that the use of criminal defamation laws continues to have chilling effect on the press in Latin America. In 2012, Bolivian journalist Rogelio Peláez was sentenced to 30 months in prison on defamation charges springing from a story he wrote alleging government corruption.

For a comparative study of criminal defamation laws in the Americas, see CPJ’s campaign, Critics Are Not Criminals.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This text has been corrected in the seventh paragraph to reflect that it is not the defendant who chooses where a defamation case is heard.