Peruvian journalist sentenced to prison for defamation will take his case to the OAS

Peruvian journalist Fernando Valencia’s case will be presented before to the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), according to the newspaper La República.

On April 18, Valencia was sentenced to 20 months in prison on charges of aggravated defamation. Carlos Rivera Paz, a lawyer from the Legal Defense Institute (IDL for its initials in Spanish) who is defending the journalist, also said that the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) would be informed about the case, the newspaper added.

In addition to the 20-month sentence, Valencia, the former director of the newspaper Diario 16, was sentenced to pay 100,000 Peruvian nuevo soles ($30,000 US dollars) in damages to the former president of Peru Alan García Pérez who lodged a criminal complaint against him for alleged defamation over an article from three years ago, according to various media outlets and news blogs in Peru.

According to the daily Perú 21, the Supreme Court of Lima reported that on April 28 Valencia appealed the ruling handed down by the Seventh Criminal Court and that the case will be reviewed by an appeals court in the coming days.

The case began with the March 1, 2013 front page of Diario 16, which published the headline “Humala lashes out against the Aprista government: Thieves to jail, not in power” together with photos of Peruvian President Ollanta Humala and García. This led to former president García’s lawsuit against Valencia.

The newspaper had quoted from Humala’s speech, which alluded to the mismanagement of the previous president (García), during an infrastructure project inauguration in the province of San Martín in the northeast of the country, according to the Institute for Press and Society (IPYS for its initials in Spanish) and the blog La Mula.

The sentenced journalist said on his Facebook page that in June 2013 the lawsuit had been found to be inadmissible by Rómulo Chira Cabezas from the Ninth Criminal Court for those who posted bail in Lima.

In 2013, Judge Chira Cabezas established that there was no intention to damage García’s honor according to Diario 16’s reporting at the time. The judge also highlighted then, according to the daily, that the words of President Humala “in some cases are aimed at critiquing certain acts carried out by the plaintiff (Alan García), depending on the political and social context at the time.”

The publication of the front page in question, according to Cabezas, is protected by the right to freedom of speech as stated in Article 2, section 4 of the political constitution of Peru as a democratic constitutional guarantee.

International and national organizations and human rights defenders have made statements about the case in the last few days.

On April 25, the Office of the Special Rapporteur for the IACHR expressed its concern over Valencia’s sentencing and called on the Peruvian State to adhere to international freedom of speech standards to guarantee the free exercise of journalism “without improper interventions,” while suggesting reforms to Peruvian legislation.

The Rapporteur emphasized that the use of the penal code to punish reporting on issues of public interest or about public officials is disproportionate and undermines freedom of speech. “The protection of a person’s reputation should only be guaranteed through civil sanctions,” the Special Rapporteur highlighted quoting the 10th principle 10 of the Inter-American Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression adopted by the IACHR in 2000.

Claudia Paolillo, chairman of the IAPA’s Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, declared that “the court ruling represents a very worrisome trend that appears to be among Peruvian judges of sentencing to prison or settling severe fines to journalists for giving an opinion about matters of public interest,” according to a press release from the organization.

Meanwhile, Peruvian Ombudsman, Eduardo Vega Luna, expressed the need to decriminalize defamation as it impinges on journalists’ freedom of speech—making reference to Valencia’s case as well as to the case against Peruvian journalist and writer Rafael León (Rafo León), who also faces charges for alleged defamation against the former general editor of the daily El Comercio.

“You cannot sentence journalists for having stated an opinion or for criticizing a known figure or public official,” Vega Luna declared according to La República.

The French non-profit organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF) also joined the defense efforts for the Peruvian journalists accused of defamation, Valencia and León, finding their situations unjust.

Emmanuel Colombié, from the RSF Latin America office, said that “the use of criminal defamation in these two cases is utterly disproportionate and fosters a climate of self-censorship in Peru.”

Rafo León, who is also a television host, could be sentenced on May 3 to three years in prison during the trial for aggravated defamation against him. He was accused by Marta Mier Miró Quesada, from the daily El Comercio, after he published an opinion piece in the magazine Caretas on June 20, 2014.

León published “What should we do with the little cousin?” in defense of then-mayor of Lima, Susana Villarán, who had been harshly critiqued in Marta Mier’s editorial piece titled “Susy’s Syndrome,” which had previously been published in El Comercio on July 16, 2014.

Similarly, former IACHR Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, the Colombian lawyer Catalina Botero, told the newspaper La República that Peru has to repeal its slander and libel laws.

“While these laws are not repealed, people like this woman [Marta Meier Miró Quesada] who feel offended by a column that was critical and satirical, protected by freedom of speech, are going to continue using the criminal code as a threat against people who think differently and who have a right to express it,” Botero stated.

However, the president of the Peruvian Judiciary, Víctor Ticona, told the Peruvian news site Clases de Periodismo that Valencia’s sentencing and León’s upcoming trial are not an attack against freedom of speech. “I totally reject that it be said that judges are being used as tools for other interests or by the political power, or that that freedom of speech is being chipped away,” Ticona stated.

According to RSF, Peru is ranked at number 84 among 180 countries in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index.

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.