Judge acquits Chilean journalist Javier Rebolledo, sued for defamation by former Army official

Chilean journalist Javier Rebolledo Escobar was acquitted of the crime of defamation (injurias graves con publicidad) after being accused by a former Army official sentenced for crimes against humanity committed during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), news agency EFE reported.

On Oct. 9, in the sole trial established by the court on Aug. 16, Judge Ely Cecilia Rothfeld of the Eighth Court of Guarantee of Santiago dismissed the charges for lack of evidence against Rebolledo, EFE added. However, the judge did not rule on the merits of the complaint, El Mostrador reported.

The journalist, although he was happy to be "absolved and free,” told the Knight Center that he was left with "a bitter taste" because the judge did not look at the merits of the case.

javierJavier Ignacio Rebolledo Escobar. (Courtesy).

According to Rebolledo, the plaintiffs were not able to present their evidence during the final trial on Oct. 9 due to a procedural error in presenting the complaint. This situation was allegedly the reason why the judge announced to the defense that Rebolledo would be acquitted and it would exonerate him, if he so wished, from not presenting his evidence. A proposal that the defense accepted, according to Rebolledo.

“She did not say it verbatim, but ultimately what [the judge] said was that I had been acquitted for lack of evidence [...], but that did not mean that I was innocent by the merits of the defamation because this had not been judged,” Rebolledo said.

The case against Rebolledo originated in his most recent book called  “Camaleón: doble vida de un agente comunista” (Chamelon: double life of a communist agent), published in August 2017. The ex-official Raúl Quintana Salazar and his daughter, who filed the complaint on April 30, considered that the book describes events considered insulting.

One of these incidents has to do with the  alleged torture and rape of a foreign woman by the former oficial. Quintana Salazar was an agent of the intelligence service of the country, then called DINA (Directorate of National Intelligence), and is currently in Punta Peuco prison, an exclusive premises for members of the armed forces.

The crime for which Rebolledo was accused carries a sentence of up to three years in prison. The complainants also requested the payment of a fine of one million Chilean pesos (approximately US $1,460), as well as the change of some paragraphs in the next editions of the book, EFE reported.

After his acquittal, Rebolledo announced that he will denounce his complainants for the "moral damage" caused, but also with the purpose of raising awareness of the implications of filing this kind of complaint.

“It is not to come and to complain against a journalist. If they are not able to prove the injuria (defamation), one also has the right to sue and that also has to be paid because there is moral damage, there is a damage to the honor when you complain without foundation as was the case of these people and there is damage to the profession,” Rebolledo said. “There is also a fear, there is a stress that occurs in the person and I had to live it for months. Yes, with a lot of solidarity from my colleagues, from a lot of people from Chile and from different parts of the world who supported me, but the fact remains that there is damage,” he added.

In effect, the denunciation against Rebolledo, who for a little more than 13 years has been covering human rights violations during the Chilean dictatorship for different media and now as an editorial author, caused controversy in Chile. In addition, international organizations defending press freedom rejected the complaint and expressed their support for Rebolledo.

The journalist also told the Knight Center that now that his case was closed, he will work with a group of congressmen and with the support of the Chilean Journalists Association and human rights lawyers on a bill to repeal the the crime of injurias (defamation) from the country’s criminal code.

“Understanding that this violates freedom of expression, but above all undermines the right of citizens to inform themselves. It is proven that in places where the criminal code exists the possibility of imprisoning journalists and citizens for the possibility of 'insulting' people - be they individuals or de facto powers - is a tremendous tool that is given to those and that is an intimidation that can clearly lead to self-censorship,” Rebolledo said.

He said they expect to present this bill before the end of this year. Rebolledo believes that the environment may be conducive to change the law.

“I think there is an awareness at this stage of the game that the press is something that belongs to all of us, that is consecrated and that the right to freedom of expression is being violated,” the journalist said. “By affecting the right to freedom of expression the right to information is affected, and that is common to all citizens. It is common to congressmen, it is common to senators, it is common to presidents, it is common to judges, it is common to ordinary citizens. And I think that consciousness is there,” he concluded.