Chilean President Michelle Bachelet sues magazine Qué Pasa for defamation

A Chilean magazine is facing a lawsuit for defamation from the country’s top government official.

President Michelle Bachelet is suing weekly magazine Qué Pasa for defamation (injurias and calumnias) in response to an article from the publication. The suit was confirmed on May 31 by government spokesman Marcelo Díaz who said from La Moneda, which houses the presidential offices, that Bachelet filed the complaint as a citizen, according to El Mostrador.

On May 26, magazine Qué Pasa published a transcript of statements from someone believed to be real estate developer Juan Díaz that were made during a telephone conversation intercepted by request of a prosecutor in the so-called Caval case.

The Caval case involves charges of suspected influence peddling against Bachelet’s daughter-in-law Natalia Compagnon, who co-owns the Caval firm. Qué Pasa broke the Caval case story in February 2015, according to EFE.

In the statements, the man reportedly mentioned President Bachelet.

Shortly after the transcript was published, the editorial team at Qué Pasa published a note saying they had edited the article and removed “fragments where serious allegations were made against third parties.” It also apologized to those involved and its readers.

“Although from the beginning it was made explicit that this is only the transcription of telephone conversations of an accused person in the Caval case, a record that is in the hands of the attorney in the case, and this its veracity was not proven, the editorial board of this magazine has determined that the publication of such serious accusations does not comply with the standards of this media outlet.”

Following the publication of the update, on May 27, the Association of Chilean Journalists issued a statement on the publication, saying it reaffirms it commitment “that journalists will circulate, with rigor and responsibility, only substantiated information.”

In response to news of the suit, Qué Pasa published its own statement in which it said the action “attempts to restrict freedom of expression.”

“All authorities are subject to scrutiny and oversight from citizens, and the media have a special mission in this sense, since they carried out this control on those who exercise power, as an essential part of the functioning of democracy,” the magazine wrote. “The President of the Republic is not exempt from this control.”

Edison Lanza, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), was asked about the case while appearing on CNN Chile during an official visit (by invitation of the government) to talk about freedom of expression in the country.

Lanza said he could not talk about a specific case, but addressed international standards held by the Special Rapporteur and the Commission in cases like these.

According to Lanza, public officials in a democracy are subject to scrutiny from society and the press; in cases of public interest that concern public officials, there should not be criminal sanctions, but civil sanctions that adhere to the requirement of showing real malice; and that when journalists publish information from a third party that is of public interest, they don’t have responsibility for intermediating in the statement.

He said the action “has a chilling effect, not only the problem that the media outlet and journalist face today, but a chilling effect for the rest of the media and for the rest of the journalists.”

Bachelet made a statement on June 1, from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris, defending and explaining her decision to sue, according to La Tercera.

“A strong and mature democracy needs a serious and rigorous journalism, and I will always support freedom of expression and I will always support that this is done in a serious and rigorous manner, verifying the information,” Bachelet said, according to La Tercera. “That is why it has seemed to me that, as a person, my honor has been affected and this is why we have presented the suit for injurias and calumnias.”

In Chile, defamation is punishable under the criminal code and conviction can result in fines and prison time.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.