Peruvian journalist sentenced for opinion column on World Press Freedom Day

Peruvian journalist Rafael Léon was sentenced for the crime of defamation on May 3, according to newspaper La República. The sentence, which coincided with the celebration of World Press Freedom Day, requires Léon to pay 6,000 Peruvian soles (about U.S. $1,800) in civil damages and to undergo a one-year probationary period in which he must comply with rules of conduct that include not moving homes and offering to sign a monthly record.

In July 2014, “Rafo” León, as he is known, published in the magazine Caretas an opinion column that harshly criticized what he considered the notable lack of substantive arguments and excessive use of epithets with which the former editor of newspaper El Comercio, Martha Meier Miró Quesada (MMMQ) had attacked then-mayor of Lima, Susana Villarán, leader of a leftist party.

The judge in the case, Susan Coronado Zegarra, interpreted that Meier Miro Quesada had compelling reasons to call León’s criticism aggravated defamation with such phrases like “strange person MMMQ, her militant environmentalism (an ocean in length and one center deep)...”, or “…curious ecologist who frequently appears in the society pages of the newspaper surrounded by countesses of Lima dressed in fox coats,” that he used in his column, constituted affronts against the person and not against the opinions of the complainant. Therefore, it went beyond the proper exercise of freedom of expression.

I will appeal it to the highest levels,” León said, according to the news blog La Mula. The journalist and writer said the judge erroneously interpreted as defamation something that is not, putting all journalists and freedom of expression at risk, La República reported.

He added that had it not been for the pressure of other journalists, civil organizations and politicians exercised in recent weeks, the penalty would have been more severe: “If it had not been for such an impressive  and supportive public reaction, we probably would be talking in other terms […] the just thing would be to overturn the sentence.”

The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) described the event as a sign of the “‘absurd’ tendency to penalize opinions in Peru,” according to a press release published by the organization. The organization called for the country to confirm to Inter-American jurisprudence and to the principles of freedom of expression.

The sentence against León came a few days after the suspended prison sentence for journalist Fernando Valencia. Valencia was sentenced for allegedly defaming former President Alan Garcia.

The decision was rejected by various organizations such as the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the IAPA, among others.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.