Judge gives order to freeze assets of Peruvian media outlet Ojo Público and two investigative journalists

A Peruvian judge has ordered the freezing of all assets and a mandate to appear for investigative site Ojo Público, its executive director, Óscar Castilla and journalist Edmundo Cruz, of the newspaper La República.

The plaintiff is Peruvian-American Miguel Arévalo Ramírez, who previously sued the journalists for allegedly defaming him in a series of reports regarding the 2016 general elections that were published simultaneously in Ojo Público and La República. The journalists said they are still unclear as to why they are being sued this time.

The journalistic reports mention, with documents, that Arévalo, alias "Eteco," is allegedly being investigated by the public prosecutor's office, the National Police and the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), for alleged laundering of assets derived from drug trafficking.

Additionally, the reports point to Arévalo's alleged ties to people close to the party of Keiko Fujimori, who was a candidate for president in 2016 and who is now in preventive custody for alleged asset laundering during the presidential campaign.

Castilla said in an interview with the Knight Center that the freezing of assets against him responds to a new case opened on Feb. 4 of this year about the same series of reports, and about which they were not formally notified until April. Castilla also explained that they still do not know the underlying reason for this case because they have not yet received the notification of the first and second resolution in the case; they have only been notified regarding the third, in which the forceful measures against them were established, he said.

"The debate is that a person can not be judged by the same facts in different courts, and [currently] we are being judged in four different courts for the same reports," Castilla said. "What is held there is that a jurisdiction should be proposed in which only one court should process the suit that he (Arévalo) raises, and not four at the same time,” he added.

Likewise, Edmundo Cruz told the Knight Center that in the latest case the "type of complaint of summary judgment" has been opened, in which, without citing or disclosing the sustenance of the complaint to the defendants, the court has already issued a condemnatory resolution. "This indicates (additionally) that the purpose is not only to distract but even to close these types of media outlets, such as Ojo Público. If they go through with the embargo, they will seize its furniture, its technical equipment, its files," he said.

Arévalo began with lawsuits against media and journalists in 2016, since reports about his alleged links to drug trafficking and his alleged closeness to Keiko Fujimori's Fuerza Popular party were published in various media. He began with a lawsuit for Habeas data before a Mixed Court in Tocache – in San Martín, a region in northern Peru, according to Ojo Público. This accusation based on the protection of personal data was against Google Peru, Ojo Público, the newspapers El Comercio, La República, América Televisión, the magazine Caretas, the internet channel Willax TV and the weekly Hildebrandt en sus Trece. His request was that all the information from the aforementioned reports be removed from the internet. That lawsuit was archived.

Then he raised three more lawsuits against media and journalists, but this time for aggravated defamation, between 2017 and 2018, that are still in process and that Ojo Público has summarized in a box posted on its site.

In 2017, he sued journalist Miguel Ramírez, then-editor of investigative reports for El Comercio, following an opinion column in which the journalist cited intelligence documents linking Eteco to drug trafficking, according to La República. In this pending lawsuit, presented at the 11th Criminal Court of Lima, El Comercio and Ojo Público were included as civil responsible third parties. The plaintiff requested civil damages of US $100 million.

For the same alleged offense and the same series of reports, alias "Eteco" also sued journalists Óscar Castilla, Cecilia Valenzuela and the anti-drug attorney Sonia Medina Calvo – who gave her testimony in one of the reports – before the 29th Criminal Court of Lima in 2017, according to Panamericana and Perú 21. The civil compensation requested for this pending case is US $100 million, and between three and six years in prison for the journalists.

Later in 2018, and this time before the 5 Criminal Court of Lima, Arévalo filed a third judicial complaint that is also ongoing. Once again the accused are Castilla, Cruz, as well as Gustavo Mohme and César Romero, as published by the Press and Society Institute (IPYS) of Peru. La República is indicated in this case as a civil responsible third party. The plaintiff again requested civil damages of US $100 million, and between three and six years in prison for the journalists.

The amounts of civil reparations requested by the plaintiff seek, in Cruz's opinion, to intimidate journalists, the media and to generate self-censorship.

Regarding faith in due process for this fourth lawsuit, the veteran journalist from La República said: "We are not sure what the fate will be. It depends on the court in which the final decision will fall, because the truth is that the [Peruvian] judicial system is also corroded by the mafias that operate in the country."

The lawyer for Castilla y Cruz will request that the journalists and the media be properly notified at their respective addresses with the initial complaint and that the appearance they say the court never called them to and to which it declared them absent, be reprogrammed, according to the journalists.

The Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Edison Lanza, expressed his concern to the Knight Center for these types of accusations that often seek to "threaten and stop investigations.”

"And all this has a more structural issue, and it’s that some countries have not proceeded to modify the old crimes of defamation and injuriadesacatocalumnia, etc., even before the American Convention on Human Rights, and they are drafted in an absolutely open and vague way and they obviously protect the honor of officials or the powerful somehow more than the right to freedom of expression," he explained.

According to Lanza, what is happening in several Latin American countries in recent years is that the criminal remedy is being used as a "powerful and very afflictive tool" that greatly affects freedom of expression and journalism.

The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) also showed its concern regarding the case. “Once again we see with helplessness the long tradition that exists in Peru regarding the inhibitory use of lawsuits against journalists to halt their investigations and oblige them to practice self-censorship,” said IAPA president María Elvira Domínguez.

This case has also provoked regional solidarity from other Latin American journalists who have shown their rejection for what happened against Ojo Público, Edmundo Cruz, Óscar Castilla, and all the investigative journalists in Peru.

Around 60 journalists, media and organizations from the Americas have signed a statement endorsing the work of their Peruvian colleagues and asking the Peruvian authorities to immediately review the case. They also asked international organizations to adopt the precautionary measures that are necessary to protect the assets and the integrity of the accused journalists and media.

Recently in Peru, on April 22, journalist Pedro Salinas who lives in Lima was sentenced in Piura, on the north coast of Peru, to one year of suspended prison, 120 days of community service and the payment of civil compensation of 80 thousand soles (about US $24,000) in favor of Archbishop José Antonio Eguren, according to the newspaper Correo.

IDL Reporteros, an investigative journalism site whose director is Gustavo Gorriti and which is investigating the Lava Jato corruption case, has also been harassed judicially after it revealed an alleged network of corruption between organized crime and the Peruvian judicial system in the middle of 2018. The public prosecution tried to search its offices and asked it to reveal its sources.