In Paraguay, reporter and director of newspaper are at risk of imprisonment in lawsuit filed by former deputy minister

On Sept. 16, Natalia Zuccolillo, the director of Paraguayan newspaper ABC Color, and journalist Juan Carlos Lezcano will go to trial and could be sentenced to prison and the payment of a $1.4 million fine – a move that has alarmed organizations and press freedom advocates.

The libel and defamation lawsuit was filed by former Deputy Tax Minister Martha González Ayala, who served during Horacio Cartes Jara’s presidency (2013-2018). Between March and April 2019, ABC Color revealed that González Ayala hired a company, of which González Ayala was the director, for the implementation of a new taxation system.

“The fact that I am being subjected to a process that can lead to a penalty or a sanction, put forth by two people tied to political and economical power, truly causes a coercive way to censor the work of journalists and, in my case in particular, it causes me anguish, because on one hand my values and beliefs as a journalist are very clear, but on the other hand I cannot ignore that I am facing people that I have critiqued and exposed before the public in a situation where I cannot see that there are equal conditions,” Lezcano told LatAm Journalism Review.

The Inter American Press Association (IAPA), regretted that "in Paraguay, international principles of press freedom are still violated by harassing journalists with prison sentences for reporting and investigating irregularities committed by public officials."

“We are going to follow this case. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) decided that criminal law is not compatible with the American Convention when public interest is at play and especially in cases of alleged corruption,” Edison Lanza, special rapporteur on freedom of expression of the IACHR, wrote on Twitter.

According to ABC Color, “the action was brought by González because we denounced alleged irregularities about her management when she was in charge of the Undersecretary of State of Taxation (SET) and the articles were based on public data of the Public Procurement and citizen complaints supported by documents.”

“It is evident our work causes discomfort in some political and economic sectors. This is a good thing because, at the end of the day, as journalists, we owe it to the common citizen who suffers the consequences of the actions of those that are mad about our denouncements and we are not here to be their friends. It is evident that this is the path to follow,” Lezcano said. 

It is not the first time that the Paraguayan journalist has been the victim of an attempt at coercion for his investigative work. Last year, a senator sued Lezcano for libel and defamation after he revealed that the politician had participated in a bribery attempt to interrupt the publication’s investigation. The journalist was investigating alleged irregularities in a recent bid that favored a government supplier. In addition to the lawsuit, the senator also started a virtual campaign attacking the journalist, including threats of aggression.

“Both criminal proceedings of which I am criminally accused and will appear in an oral and public trial are related to publications related to issues of public interest that involve people or public figures (specifically the former senator of the nation and the former deputy tax minister),” the journalist said. “Although I have a clean conscience, because they will not be able to take away my freedom by only threatening me to send me to jail as a criminal for doing journalism, I must recognize that I am worried and in anguish to see our loved ones worried by the situation.” 

This story was originally written in Portuguese and was translated by Perla Arellano Fraire.