Colombian court decision worries organizations who say it could establish prior censorship of news media

A ruling by the Criminal Chamber of the Superior Court of Cali, Colombia, against the newspaper El País generated concern among press freedom organizations that believe it could set a precedent for prior censorship in the country.

The recent decision stems from an application for protection filed by Andrés Ramírez Urbano who considered that his good name, dignity and honor were affected after El País published a video in which he appears, according to an editorial in the newspaper El Espectador.

The video, recorded by another citizen, shows how Ramírez's vehicle falls in a canal in the city of Cali, the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) reported. According to El Espectador, it seems that Ramírez began receiving messages online that bothered him. Ramírez then asked the newspaper to take down the video, according to the IAPA. El País refused, making the argument that it dealt with news that happened in a public place, the IAPA added.

Ramírez filed an application for protection that on June 27 was denied by a court in Cali in the first instance, El Espectador reported. But in the recent decision, the Superior Court revoked the previous sentence and ordered the newspaper “within 48 hours, to distort the face of Mr. Andrés Ramírez Urbano in the video posted on its website and in future broadcasts, until it has authorization of the owner to publish it,” according to the case data consulted on the Court’s page.

Roberto Rock, president of the Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information of the IAPA, said “it is serious and of concern that this decision will create the precedent that the media must ask permission to publish public facts of those affected, a kind of prior censorship in practice,” according to a release from the organization.

“The work of the press would become a complicated activity, slow and also condemned to silence, if the media must ask for authorization of the citizens or those affected to publish images in public spaces and of news interest,” Rock added.

Pedro Vaca, executive director of the Press Freedom Foundation (FLIP) of Colombia, said that “in Colombia and any democratic country the fact that a vehicle has an accident of this dimension is a news event that must be told, and in this case we see with great concern that the judges would be lending themselves to accommodate the news events tailored to the people involved,” according to El País.

He added that, with the ruling, a censorship is imposed "by the judiciary without noticing that democracy needs information to learn about everyday events," the newspaper published.

The judgment of the Superior Court also establishes that the decision be sent to the country’s Constitutional Court "for its possible revision.” Both Rock and Vaca hope that this Court can rectify this judicial precedent.

“We hope that the Court can resolve a tension that in our opinion is quite clear and that regardless of whether there is content that may be uncomfortable for a person, if it is news, it deserves to be told and democracy must protect it in doing so,” Vaca said, according to the site La FM.

Rock said he hopes “the Court adopts and pronounces on this case which, while apparently being a simple matter, can unleash serious consequences and limitations for press freedom, the practice of journalism and freedom of expression,” according to the IAPA.

In an editorial, El Espectador also rejected this decision and considered that it could affect the journalistic process. “Imposing on journalists the burden of requesting permission to publish is to muzzle the exercise of the free press that serves citizens to make decisions about their lives. The court forgot that the Constitution prohibits prior censorship. Hopefully the Constitutional Court amends this terrible decision,” the editorial read.

The newspaper El Tiempo spoke along the same lines, expressing its concern in an editorial regarding the judicial precedent the decision would have. “The fact is that in maintaining the ordinance firmly, a serious legal precedent for the future exercise of journalism would be created. And this decision would end by setting the requirement to the media to seek the authorization of those who participate in news events before carrying out any publication. An unacceptable obstacle that would open the doors of censorship.”