Paraguayan journalists face judicial criminalization, threats for their work

Judicial criminalization and threats against Paraguayan journalists have become evident in recent months, warned the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) in its mid-year report on the state of press freedom in the Americas.

“It is a wonderful profession, but we have no guarantees; we are exposed to everything,” Paraguayan journalist Mabel Portillo, who works for Guairá Press, told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR).

As part of this judicial criminalization, Paraguayan journalist associations say a law meant to protect women is being used to censor and intimidate journalists, including Portillo, in court.

Paraguay’s Law 5777/16 for comprehensive protection of women against all forms of violence aims to establish policies and strategies for the prevention of violence against women, measures for care and protection, and sanctions and comprehensive reparations, both in the public and private spheres.

Yet, unions and journalistic organizations in Paraguay have expressed their concern about the “misuse” of this law and have denounced that it is used to censor, intimidate, harass and threaten press workers, media and independent people exercising freedom of expression.

In a statement published in February, the groups called on the Supreme Court to “issue guidelines for the correct application of the law.”

a woman journalist wearing a green blazer and posing to the camara

“It is a wonderful profession, but we have no guarantees; we are exposed to everything,” Paraguayan journalist Mabel Portillo, who works for Guairá Press, told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR). (Photo: Courtesy).

In Portillo’s case, a legal complaint using this law came after she published about the alleged embezzlement of funds in the municipality of Yataity [in southern Paraguay], as reported by Última Hora. Mayor Gloria Duarte filed the complaint and was able to get a restraining order against the journalist

“Really [this complaint] has hurt me a lot, it has already been a year of persecution. I never had problems with the law and it hurts a lot to go through all this, just to report corruption,” Portillo said. "I think that if I didn't love my profession so much, I would have already thrown in the towel. It’s not just me who suffers, but also my parents, my brothers and a community who considered me the only hope because I was the only channel they had to know what they were doing with the resources of a municipality.”

Journalist Alfredo Guachiré was also the subject of a complaint for violence against women in 2022 after publishing about an alleged case of fraud by then-president of the State Company of Health Services of Paraguay, Natalicio Chase, and his wife, Celia Galli. On this occasion, the media outlet El Independiente had to remove the story.

“Those investigated for unexplained irregularities distort Law 5777 and use it as a tool to censor or threaten,” Guachiré told LJR.

TEDIC, a Paraguayan organization dedicated to the defense and promotion of human rights on the internet, has documented other cases where Paraguayan courts issued rulings against journalists based on the application of Law 5777/16.

For example, in February, journalist Fredy Chamorro, revealed alleged irregularities in the management of a hospital and was accused of harassment by the hospital’s director. The judge in charge of the case admitted the complaint and prohibited Chamorro from publishing any type of information about the official.

Journalist and radio and TV presenter, Letizia Medina, was luckier. After she published a parody about Senator Norma Aquino on her Instagram account, the government official filed a complaint and asked to apply precautionary measures to delete the publication.

However, Judge Gustavo Villalba decided not to accept the complaint presented by the senator. 

“The humorous imitation carried out by journalist Letizia Medina is a form of expression protected by freedom of the press and freedom of expression, and as a journalist, imitation can be considered an acceptable form of political criticism in the context of freedom of the press,” the magistrate said, according to ABC Color.

photo of a man wearing a blue shirt

Vicente Godoy, a journalist for the Facebook news page Horqueta Digital, has been the subject of anonymous threats received in the form of audio recordings through WhatsApp. (Photo: Courtesy)

Judicial threats don’t come just from using Law 5777/16. The IAPA highlighted a case involving journalists from ABC Color and Última Hora, who published information about the government of former President Horacio Cartes. Since the articles did not have bylines, Paraguayan prosecutors Aldo Cantero, Rodrigo Estigarribia and Daniela Benítez asked for the identities of the journalists who wrote them, which those involved consider an intimidation against freedom of expression

In addition to the legal cases Paraguayan journalists are facing, the IAPA also noted that some members of the press were being targeted with death threats. It’s a worrisome occurrence when taking into account that journalist Alex Álvarez of Radio Urundey FM was killed in February 2023 in Pedro Juan Caballero and evidence in his case has not yet been analyzed, according to the association.

Vicente Godoy, a journalist for the Facebook news page “Horqueta Digital,” in the city of Horqueta in northern Paraguay, reported to the prosecutor in his region, at the end of 2023, that he had been the subject of anonymous threats received in the form of audio recordings through WhatsApp.

According to what the journalist told LJR, authorities in his country offered him police protection but the promises were not kept, so Godoy began procedures to request asylum in another country.

“To practice journalism in Paraguay you have to have guts, have courage, because when we investigate and report corruption, we are not talking about small amounts of money. In my investigations, in these five years, I have talked about amounts that are equivalent to almost 8 million dollars,” he told LJR.

Godoy’s is not an isolated case, as the IAPA report names at least three other journalists who reported having received death threats in the last year.

For a year now, a bill to protect journalists and human rights defenders has been under discussion in the Paraguayan legislative branch, but it still has not been approved.