Chilean police officers stand next to their patrol cars in Santiago in April 2023. On May 22, a criminal court in Santiago sentenced Victor Herrero, editor of the independent news website Interferencia, on defamation charges. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

Chilean journalist Victor Herrero fined in criminal defamation case

Bogotá, May 23, 2023—Chilean authorities should not contest journalist Victor Herrero’s appeal of his recent criminal defamation conviction and should reform the country’s laws to decriminalize speech, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Tuesday.

On Monday, May 22, a criminal court in the capital city of Santiago sentenced Herrero, editor of the independent news website Interferencia, on defamation charges and ordered him to pay the legal costs of the trial and a fine of 126,000 pesos (US$157), according to news reports, a report by his outlet, and Herrero, who communicated with CPJ by messaging app. 

Herrero said his lawyer would file an appeal, adding that paying the legal expenses for the trial could force Interferencia, which he founded in 2018, to shut down. 

“Chilean authorities should not contest journalist Victor Herrero’s appeal and must stop using outdated criminal defamation laws to threaten members of the press with fines and prison time for their work,” said Carlos Martinez de la Serna, CPJ’s program director,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.”

The court convicted Herrero on charges of defaming police Lt. Col. Christian Beltrán in an August 2022 story written by Herrero and another reporter about Beltrán being removed from his position as police intelligence chief of the southern Macrozona Sur region, allegedly due to involvement in illegal logging.

Herrero told CPJ that he stands by the story, which came from five anonymous sources he spoke with during two reporting trips to southern Chile. Neither Beltrán nor the Chilean police responded to his request for comment before publication, he said. 

CPJ could not find contact information for Beltrán or his representatives.  

After the report was published, Chilean police denied Beltrán’s transfer was linked to illegal logging, and Beltrán’s lawyers filed a criminal defamation lawsuit against Herrero, claiming the article had done “grave damage” to Beltrán’s reputation and asking for a prison sentence between 1.5 and three years.

On January 18, a criminal court in the southern city of Concepción sentenced reporter Felipe Soto Cortés to a suspended 61-day prison term and fined him 680,000 pesos (US$847) after convicting him of defaming a public official. 

CPJ’s calls and text messages to the police press department in Santiago were not answered.