Report on Chilean Injustices Spurs More of the Same

“Investigative reporter Alejandra Matus spent six years researching The Black Book of Chilean Justice. But her book, a historical exposé of the judiciary’s lack of independence, spent less than two days on Chilean bookshelves: On April 14, police confiscated its entire press run at the order of a Santiago Appeals Court judge. That same day, Matus took a plane to Argentina to avoid being arrested on charges of violating Chile’s State Security Law.

Matus is saddened by the situation, but it’s not as if she hadn’t foreseen some trouble. In the introduction of her book-now available to Chileans only on the Internet-the journalist discusses the risks she and her publisher Planeta run “for the mere act of disseminating facts that, although well-founded and proven, are going to be uncomfortable for its protagonists.”

The Black Book made Supreme Court Justice Servando Jordán, who narrowly escaped impeachment in 1997 for corruption allegations, highly uncomfortable. He responded by initiating proceedings under the State Security Law, which makes it a crime to insult high officials. The Santiago Appeals Court processed his suit with, as Matus puts it, “impressive speed.”

It is not the first time Jordán has taken offense and resorted to the State Security Law, which was enacted in 1958. In January 1998, the judge initiated proceedings against José Ale and Fernando Paulsen, reporter and then-editor of the Santiago daily La Tercera, respectively. The charges stemmed from a story by Ale that analyzed Jordán’s two-year tenure as chief justice of the Supreme Court. Ale wrote that during that period, “the prestige of Chile’s judiciary fell to one of its lowest levels ever.” In September, the journalists were arrested at the newspaper’s office and jailed overnight, then released on bail. They were indicted in January.

Jordán also ran for the cover of the State Security Law when Paula Coddou, reporter of the magazine Cosas, published an interview with television reporter Rafael Gumucio in which he described Jordán as an “ugly old man with an obscure past.” After the initial complaint, in January 1998, the journalists were jailed overnight, but Jordán subsequently withdrew his charges.

There has been an enormous public outcry in reaction to the prosecution of Matus, from all sectors of Chilean society. Legislators trooped to the Supreme Court carrying a huge pair of cardboard scissors, symbolizing the cutting off of information. The Chamber of Deputies has urged President Eduardo Frei to give the utmost priority to reforming the legal framework for freedom of expression in Chile.

The State Security Law runs counter to Chile’s own constitution, whose Article 19 (12) guarantees the freedom to express opinions and to inform, and prohibits prior censorship. The law also infringes on Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights, which Chile ratified. In Martorell v. Chile, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights held that Chile’s 1993 Supreme Court decision banning Francisco Martorell’s book Diplomatic Impunity constituted unwarranted censorship.

As part of the resolution in Verbitsky v. Argentina, the commission held that laws that criminalize criticism of government officials go against “the most fundamental principle of a democratic system, which subjects the government to the scrutiny of citizens, so that abuse of power can be prevented or controlled.” The commission maintained that critical and even offensive statements are inevitable in a truly free public debate. To attack such debate by law is to strip freedom of expression of its core.

In her book’s introduction, Matus remembers “the difficulties that I often had to confront, devising all kinds of euphemisms and linguistic detours to avoid the State Security Law.” Speaking of her current legal struggle, she says, “This can result in something extremely positive for press freedom-however difficult the situation is right now.” If the anachronistic State Security Law is amended as a result of the debate her prosecution has provoked, she may be right.