Bogotá, April 21, 2021 – Colombian authorities should dismiss a criminal defamation lawsuit against investigative journalist Jeremy McDermott, and Colombia should reform its defamation laws to align with international standards, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On April 6, the national attorney general’s office notified McDermott, a British national and the co-director and legal representative of the Medellín-based news organization InSight Crime, that Guillermo Acevedo, the subject of an InSight Crime investigation, had filed a criminal defamation suit against him, according to news reports and McDermott, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.
The lawsuit stems from InSight Crime’s six-part series “The Invisible Drug Lord: Hunting the Ghost” published in March 2020, the journalist said. The articles, written by McDermott, claim that Acevedo, a Colombian businessman based in Madrid, was a former drug trafficker and leader of a now defunct paramilitary army.
If convicted, McDermott could face up to 72 months in prison and a fine of up to about $375,000, according to Article 221 of Colombia’s penal code.
“The Colombian judicial system should not be used as a tool to retaliate against investigative journalists, but the fact that criminal defamation laws remain on the books allows this pattern to continue,” said CPJ Central and South America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick, in New York. “Colombian authorities should move quickly to resolve and dismiss the criminal suit against Jeremy McDermott.”
CPJ emailed Acevedo and his lawyer, David Espinosa Acuña, for comment, but did not receive any responses. In an April 2020 statement following the publication of the InSight Crime series, Espinosa claimed the articles contained false information that damaged the moral integrity of his client, and said Acevedo would file a criminal defamation lawsuit.
Yesterday, the attorney general’s office held a conference to pursue an out-of-court settlement in the case, but Espinosa said his client preferred to go through with the lawsuit, McDermott told CPJ.
McDermott said the attorney general’s office must now conduct a preliminary investigation to determine whether he should be prosecuted.
Last year, Colombian Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez filed a separate criminal defamation suit against McDermott for his reporting, as CPJ documented at the time. Following widespread criticism in the Colombian media, Ramírez, who according to press reports is expected to run for president next year, later dropped the lawsuit.
McDermott told CPJ that he would “not change a comma” in the series on Acevedo, which won the 2020 Simón Bolívar Prize, Colombia’s top journalism award. After the series was published, Attorney General Francisco Barbosa confirmed to Colombia’s W Radio that Acevedo had previously worked for the Medellín drug cartel as well as a paramilitary group.
Paola Tovar, a spokesperson for Barbosa, did not respond to CPJ’s requests for comment sent via messaging app.