In March 2019, David Romero Ellner began serving a 10-year prison sentence on defamation charges, after being found guilty in 2016 of defaming a former Honduran prosecutor, Sonia Inez Gálvez Ferrani, in his reporting for Radio Globo on corruption allegations. The plaintiff in the case was also an attorney in an earlier case against Romero. The court found that Romero had defamed Gálvez, who is married to the former assistant attorney general, in revenge for her role in a prior conviction, as documented by CPJ. Romero has maintained that his reports were on influence peddling, and were in the public interest.
Romero is the director of private, nationwide outlets Radio Globo and Globo TV. His reporting has frequently focused on allegations of corruption in President Juan Orlando Hernández’s administration. In 2015, he reported on alleged corruption in the country’s social security administration, including the alleged use of funds from the system to finance the 2013 campaign of President Hernández.
On March 28, 2019, police raided the Tegucigalpa office of Radio Globo and Globo TV and took Romero into custody to serve a 10-year prison sentence for defamation, according to news reports and local press freedom organization C-Libre. Romero had taken refuge in the station a few days earlier, after the Supreme Court on January 11, 2019, unanimously upheld a lower court’s March 2016 conviction and sentencing on the defamation charges, and a warrant was issued for the journalist’s arrest, according to local press reports.
In its March 14, 2016, ruling, the Fourth Chamber of the Honduras’ Sentencing Court, led by Judge Geraldina Mejía Rivera, sentenced Romero to one year and eight months in prison for each of six charges that he defamed Gálvez in his journalistic work, for a total sentence of 10 years in prison, according to news reports. Romero told CPJ at the time that he was also prohibited from talking about Gálvez on television or radio.
The plaintiff in the case, Gálvez, was an attorney in an earlier case against Romero in which the journalist was convicted of raping his daughter. Romero, who was a Liberal Party legislator at the time, was stripped of his parliamentary immunity and sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2004 in that case, according to press reports. Romero told CPJ that he was released after five years for good behavior.
The court found that Romero had defamed Gálvez by insulting her and improperly reporting on her private life to take revenge for her role in his prior conviction, as CPJ reported. Romero maintained in court that his reports were on influence peddling, and were in the public interest, according to press reports. Gálvez is married to former Assistant Attorney General Rigoberto Cuéllar, who left the post in June 2018, as affirmed in court documents from the defamation trial, which CPJ has reviewed.
Romero’s journalistic work has frequently alleged corruption in Hernández’s administration. In 2015, he reported on alleged corruption in the country’s social security administration, including the alleged use of funds from the system to finance Hernández’s 2013 campaign. At the time, Hernández promised an investigation into the allegations.
In a July 2015 statement published by the daily newspaper La Tribuna, the Office of the Presidency denied allegations that it had any role in the prosecution of Romero for defamation.
Also in July 2015, Judge Agüero Echenique–who, before he retired, had served on the panel that tried Romero–told reporters that Teodoro Bonilla, a member of the Judicial Council, which has the power to appoint and remove judges, had pressured him on behalf of the president to convict Romero and to impose a tough sentence. Bonilla vehemently denied those accusations in remarks published by El Heraldo.
On March 21, 2019, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted precautionary measures on behalf of Romero, requesting that Honduras not act on the Supreme Court ruling until the commission had decided on the petition filed on the case. In a March 26 statement, the Honduran government said the case was not a freedom of expression issue. On March 29, the commission condemned Romero’s detention in a statement on Twitter, and urged the government to reconsider.
Romero is currently serving his 10-year sentence at the Second Infantry Battalion, the Honduran press freedom organization C-Libre told CPJ via messaging app and according to press reports.
On March 26, 2019, after the arrest warrant was issued for Romero, Galvez issued a public statement, published by local media, in which she stated that the defamation case she brought against Romero has nothing to do with freedom of expression, “but solely with the defense of my dignity as a women as an operator of justice.” In the statement, Galvez claims that Romero took advantage of his television and radio platforms to “viscerally attack me in a systematic manner,” and that those were “personal attacks that have nothing to do with the right to information or freedom of expression.”
On August 26, the Honduran National Assembly announced that the country’s new Penal Code, which was originally set to enter into force in November, will not include so-called “crimes against honor,” such as defamation, libel, and slander, which will instead be moved to the civil code, according to news reports and a congressional statement. In November, the legislature postponed the entry into force of the Penal Code, which was planned for November 2019, to May 2020.
According to a report in local daily El Heraldo, Romero will be eligible to appeal his sentence under the new penal code.