Sentence of 18 months in prison for defamation upheld for directors of Chilean weekly

The Association of Journalists of Chile (Colegio de Periodistas de Chile) has called for a change to Chilean law concerning freedom of expression in light of a Supreme Court ruling that upheld a sentence of 18 months in prison for defamation (injurias) for the directors of weekly publication El Ciudadano.

In Chile, as in many Latin American countries, defamation is criminalized and punishable by jail or prison time. Various freedom of expression and press advocacy organizations have called and worked for the decriminalization of defamation in the region.

The Association of Journalists of Chile said the punishment against El Ciudadano’s directors “is against the provisions of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the [Organization of American States].”

“Threats of criminal sanctions as serious as prison for offending officials or authorities of the State may be a hindrance for journalists to investigate and for citizens who express opinions concerning the public interest, the association said. “Certainly our legal system must protect the honor and privacy of people, whether citizens or public officials, and establish penalties, but this should not in any way entail corporal punishment such as jail.”

In August 2013, El Ciudadano published an interview with the former employee of Miodrag Marinovic, a businessman and former representative from Punta Arenas.

In the interview, titled “El Patrón del Mal,” Rodrigo Calixto said he was ordered by Marinovic to commit multiple illegal acts, according to El Ciudadano.

Shortly after publication of the interview, the directors of El Ciudadano received a suit from Marinovic accusing them of defamation. Accompanying the suit was a notarized document from Calixto “noting that he retracted his words and did not authorize the publication, that he had given the interview in an altered psychological state, but that it was too late, the newspaper had been printed and distributed,” according to El Ciudadano.

On June 11, the Supreme Court of Chile rejected an appeal from El Ciudadano’s directors to challenge an April 2015 ruling against them, according to the Association of Journalists of Chile.

As part of their explanation for the decision, the court said that the directors allowed the publication of insulting statements that were attributed to Calixto, yet they could not prove he had said them.

On June 23, El Ciudadano published a lengthy article in reply to the Supreme Court’s decision.

They said the directors had acted “with more than the minimum diligence required.”

The directors had asked journalist and interviewer Sergio Cárdenas for documents to support the investigation, according to El Ciudadano. They wrote that the support was a “video of more than 40 minutes and an audio recording.” They said the directors then made efforts to verify the accusations and information about Marinovic. They made calls to the city of Punta Arenas and talked with journalists and fishermen and performed “an exhaustive Internet search” to construct a profile of Marinovic, according to El Ciudadano.

Concluding the recent reply to the Supreme Court’s decision, the publication wrote, “The judgment is serious, and today, once again, journalism that judges the powerful when justice does not act is one that is in danger.”

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.