Chilean journalist Felipe Soto Cortés recently received a suspended prison sentence for criminal defamation. (Photo: Felipe Soto Cortés)

Chilean journalist Felipe Soto Cortés convicted of criminal defamation

Bogotá, January 27, 2023 – Chilean authorities should not contest journalist Felipe Soto Cortés’ appeal of a recent criminal defamation conviction and should stop using criminal defamation laws against members of the press, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.

On January 11, a criminal court judge in the southern city of Concepción convicted Soto, editor of the independent news website Resumen, of defaming public official Rodrigo Daroch, according to news reports and Soto, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.

On January 18, the court sentenced Soto to a suspended 61-day prison term and a fine of 680,000 Chilean pesos (US$847). The journalist is required to report his whereabouts to the police every month for the next year, he told CPJ.

The lawsuit stemmed from a July 5, 2022, article in Resumen alleging that Daroch, who heads the fish and aquaculture unit of the Bío Bío state government, was earning excessive pay while working for the state as well as local town governments.

Soto said his lawyer had appealed the verdict.

“Chilean authorities should not contest journalist Felipe Soto Cortés’ appeal and must stop using outdated criminal defamation laws to threaten members of the press with prison time for their work,” said Carlos Martinez de la Serna, CPJ’s program director, in New York. “Defamation should never be handled as a criminal matter, and such laws have no place in a democracy.”

Soto told CPJ that Daroch refused to respond to his article or offer a rebuttal, and instead filed the criminal defamation suit against him. The article states that its conclusions were based on a report by the Bío Bío unit of the federal comptroller general’s office.

CPJ emailed Daroch and texted the Bío Bío state government for comment, but did not immediately receive any replies.

“This is judicial bullying,” Soto told CPJ. “I’m going to keep reporting, but a criminal conviction is very intimidating.”

Speaking to CPJ via messaging app, Javier Garcia, president of the Observatory for Communication Rights, a press freedom group based in the capital city of Santiago, denounced the conviction and said public officials must be tolerant of scrutiny from the news media.

In a statement, Chile’s Association of Journalists called the conviction “a profound regression for press freedom in Chile.”