|FEBRUARY 4, 2004|
Posted: April 5, 2004
Renato Álvarez, Televicentro
Álvarez, host of the debate program "Frente a Frente" (Face to Face), part of the news program "TVC," which is broadcast by TV station Corporación Televicentro, was convicted of criminal defamation.
In the June 23, 2003, edition of his segment, Álvarez read from a government report that linked several government officials, politicians, businessmen, and lawyers to a drug cartel in Honduras. The individuals allegedly involved in drug trafficking included, among others, former police commissioner Álvaro Flores Ponce; his brother, police officer Jimmy Flores Ponce; lawyer Rossel Barralaga; and Julio Eduardo Sarmiento, a politician and former parliamentary deputy for the ruling National Party.
Seeking to confirm the authenticity of the report, Álvarez also interviewed Honduran Security Minister Oscar Álvarez and asked him if he was aware of the existence of the report and what he had done about it. Minister Álvarez replied that authorities were aware of the document and were looking into it. During his segment, Álvarez did not reveal the source for the report or its author and said it had been given to him just minutes before the start of his segment.
On June 25, 2003, Sarmiento, one of the individuals accused in the report, appeared on "Frente a Frente" to deny that he belonged to a drug cartel. He also announced he was going to file a criminal defamation lawsuit against Álvarez. Subsequently, Sarmiento, Barralaga, and the brothers Flores all filed criminal complaints against Álvarez accusing him of libel and defamation.
In September 2003, the brothers Flores settled their complaint with Álvarez, who agreed to offer a public clarification, saying that he did not seek to damage their reputation and that journalistic ethics forbade him to reveal his source. In settlement hearings held in August 2003, Barralaga and Sarmiento requested that Álvarez reveal his sources for the report, but the journalist refused and the case went to trial.
On January 30, 2004, a court acquitted Álvarez in the lawsuit brought by Barralaga, who filed an appeal on February 27. However, in the Sarmiento lawsuit, another court convicted Álvarez on February 4 and scheduled a sentencing hearing for February 18. At the hearing, the court sentenced Álvarez to two years and eight months in prison but suspended the sentence and gave him five years' probation. In addition, the journalist was ordered to pay legal costs and was stripped of some civil and political rights, including the right to vote and the right to run for public office.
In his ruling, the court invoked Article 25 of the 1958 Law of Free Expression of Thought, which establishes that, "All commentaries shall be written or read to include the signature or the name of the author, for whose identity the editor or director of the medium shall be directly responsible. For those items that are not signed, the person who makes the publication shall be directly responsible." The court also found that Álvarez had not verified the facts contained in the report he read on camera.
According to the Honduran press freedom group Comité por la Libre Expresión, during the trial, the witnesses for the plaintiff attributed comments to Álvarez that did not appear in a transcript of his show.
On March 17, Álvarez's lawyer, Enrique Flores Lanza, filed an appeal for annulment (recurso de casación) on behalf of his client before the Supreme Court of Justice in the capital, Tegucigalpa.