Peruvian journalist says she is being harassed in the courts following reporting on religious community

Peruvian investigative journalist Paola Ugaz is the target of a second lawsuit, this time for allegedly making false statements as a witness during the defamation trial against her colleague Pedro Salinas.

Paola Ugaz. (Twitter).

Paola Ugaz. (Twitter).

During the trial, Ugaz denied that she was a producer of the documentary “The Sodalitium Scandal” that was produced and made by Al Jazeera. The documentary alleges that members of the religious community committed sexual abuse and that a real estate company linked to the Sodalitium in Piura trafficked land.

Ugaz’s statement led to the opening of a preliminary investigation by the public prosecutor’s office based on the personal complaint filed by the then-general manager of the Inmobiliaria Miraflores Perú, Carlos Alberto Gómez de la Torre.

Ugaz said this real estate company is linked to the Sodalitium.

Gómez de la Torre assured the Knight Center that he is no longer general manager of the real estate company and that this complaint has been made on a personal basis.

"I'm not a member of the Sodalitium, so I do not act on behalf of this organization, nor does it motivate me to retaliate for the book [“Half Monks, Half Soldiers”] about abuses that Mrs. Ugaz published together with Mr. Salinas. The only thing that encourages me is the defense of my honor sullied by the false and defamatory report produced by Mrs. Ugaz," Gómez de la Torre said.

In his denunciation against Ugaz, Gómez de la Torre says that she was the producer of the Al Jazeera documentary.

Regarding the content of the documentary, Gómez de la Torre asserts that Ugaz produced a report that goes against his honor and that the people interviewed in that report about the Sodalitium say falsehoods. Additionally, he said he sent a series of notarized letters to the journalist to remove the documentary from the internet, but never received an answer.

Gómez de la Torre also said he sent notarized letters to the Peruvian journalist who conducted the journalistic investigation of the documentary, Daniel Yovera. In addition, he claimed to have sent notarized letters to the Peruvian producer Pacha Films, which edited the documentary, and also to the representatives of the Al Jazeera channel both in Peru and in the United Kingdom.

"I will continue with my fight step by step until the truth is known, the Al Jazeera report is removed [from the internet] and my good name is rectified. I'm not going to rest in it, for me, for my family and my future well-being, and I'll achieve it no matter what the effort is," the businessman said.

Yovera told the Knight Center that although he received notarized letters from the legal representative of the Sodalitium and its companies, these were in response to the numerous interview requests and the agenda of questions that he sent them in advance of filming, to get their answers and include them in the Al Jazeera documentary.

“I have not been sued so far,” Yovera said.

This is not the first legal action against Ugaz.

The Archbishop of Piura, José Antonio Eguren, who belongs to the Sodalitium, sued Ugaz in late 2018 for aggravated defamation for having published seven tweets on her Twitter profile about him and his religious community. In these tweets, published in the context of Pope Francis' visit to Peru, Ugaz reported on the alleged sexual abuse and alleged land trafficking that the SVC allegedly committed.

Ugaz said that the recent suit against her and the more than 20 notarized letters she has received from people and companies linked to the Sodalitium seek to harass her judicially and emotionally and make her lose time. This year she plans to publish an investigation about the finances of the Sodalitium with publisher Planeta.

"I understand that an investigative journalist, a journalist in general, when he publishes something that is hard, that is difficult or that is revealing of a powerful organization, he is liable to receive demands, that is not detached from our work, but in this case I have not published anything. Here I have not published anything about them, nothing, nothing, nothing," the journalist explained.

"And I had that day that I went to Piura, that I was a witness for Pedro, the letter from Al Jazeera denying that I had been the producer, and Judge (Judith) Cueva told me that they no longer accepted evidence at that stage of Pedro's trial, and I remained with my letter. They never received it from me. I can’t do anything else about it. I do not appear in the credits, I was not the producer, I do not have any employment relationship before or now with Al Jazeera, not anything," Ugaz said.

Diarmuid Jeffreys, manager of investigative programmes at Al Jazeera English, confirmed to the Knight Center that Ugaz was not a producer of the documentary in question.

The Knight Center has access to the letter signed by Jeffreys on Jan. 23, 2019 that was addressed to Judge Esthella Alva Pantaleón, who oversaw Eguren’s case against Ugaz. In the letter, Jeffreys clarifies that Ugaz was not part of the production of the documentary and didn’t have any involvement in it.

In an interview with the Knight Center, Carlos Rivera, Ugaz's defense attorney, alleged that this investigation by the Piura public prosecutor's office regarding the second lawsuit contains a series of irregularities.

"Without strong evidence, [the public prosecutor] has opened an investigation of a criminal nature for an offense against the administration of justice in the form of false testimony in court. Again, the penal system is the instrument, the club with which the journalist is hit," Rivera said.

Ugaz received a summons from the public prosecutor of Piura for June 18 without the complaint that motivated this investigation being attached, Rivera said. "It is a serious omission that I believe is intentional," the lawyer interpreted.

Another irregularity noted by Rivera is that the video of the Al Jazeera documentary allegedly is not among the evidence that supports this preliminary investigation. For Rivera it is irregular that the prosecutor admits a complaint without verifying the evidence that indicates the fault.

Ugaz's lawyer mentioned that the only evidence presented by Gómez de la Torre in his complaint are the comments made by the journalist in a radio interview about having collaborated in the production of the documentary, and an article by Salinas in which the journalist mentioned her as a producer.

Ugaz commented that it was “a levity” on her part to have commented at some point that she participated in the production of the documentary.

"What I do recognize is that it was a levity on my part to say that I was the producer, just for having helped Daniel Yovera with some data, some information about the Sodalitium, but I was not the producer," Ugaz said.

Rivera revealed that they have already started conversations with Al Jazeera so the organization could formally communicate to the prosecutor that Ugaz does not have any contractual or labor relationship with its journalistic company.

The journalist Yovera, who conducted the journalistic investigation of the documentary also denied that Ugaz was part of the production team hired by Al Jazeera.

"We are going to file a complaint with the internal control body of the public prosecutor’s office because it appears to us that it is an abuse of authority on the part of the prosecutor to open a criminal investigation that could have serious consequences against Paola Ugaz," the journalist’s lawyer said.

Regarding Archbishop Eguren’s lawsuit, the religious leader recently ratified before the court the withdrawal of his defamation claim against Ugaz.

*The Knight Center unsuccessfully tried to communicate with the prosecutor in Piura, Peru regarding the lawsuit against Paola Ugaz.