Peru should decriminalize defamation, not criminalize its journalists

Peru: Decriminalize defamation, don't criminalize journalists

PEN Center USA joins PEN International to call on the Peruvian authorities to absolve Rafael León Rodríguez, to remove defamation from the criminal code, and make it a civil offense. A version of this statement originally appeared on the PEN International website.

On May 3, 2016, World Press Freedom Day, rather than celebrating, Peruvian journalist and author Rafael León Rodríguez (known as Rafo León) headed to court to be criminally convicted of defaming another journalist in an opinion piece. The judge sentenced him to a year of judicial supervision, and to pay a civil compensation of 6,000 sols (US $1800).

PEN Center USA joins PEN International in holding that convicting León of criminal defamation for an opinion piece on a matter of public interest is a violation of his right to freedom of expression and opinion protected under national and international law. PEN Center USA urges the Peruvian authorities to absolve him and to remove defamation from the criminal code and make it a civil offense.

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Please SIGN the petition at the bottom of this page to join PEN Center USA's appeal to the Peruvian authorities:

  • Urging the Peruvian judiciary to reverse their decision against journalist and author Rafo León, convicted of criminal defamation for an opinion piece on a matter of public interest, which PEN believes would be a violation of his right to freedom of expression and opinion protected under national and international law;
  • Calling on them to review the convictions and sentences of all other writers and journalists convicted of criminal defamation with a view to overturning them;
  • Reminding the Peruvian Congress of its pledge to remove defamation from the criminal code and to make it a civil offense and urging them to fulfill this pledge as a matter of urgency.

Background via PEN International

Peruvian journalist and author Rafael León Rodríguez (known as Rafo León) (b. 1950) is known for his columns for the Lima-based weekly newsmagazine Caretas, his travel accounts, and his short stories. He was summoned for sentencing on May 3, 2016—UNESCO World Press Freedom Day—in a criminal defamation case brought against him in 2014 by Martha Meier Miró Quesada, then general editor and columnist for El Comercio, one of the country’s leading newspapers.

The lawsuit stems from an opinion piece León published in his regular column in Caretas in June 2014 in response to an earlier column by Meier in El Comercio criticizing the then Mayor of Lima, Susana Villarán de la Puente. In his satirical piece, León says Meier provides no solid arguments for her criticisms, undermines her credentials as an environmental journalist and questions her suitability to continue as editor of El Comercio.

Claiming that she had been insulted and humiliated by his ‘misogynistic’ column, Meier sued León for defamation in August 2014; no charges were brought against Caretas. León contested that his column used irony and rhetoric to comment on a matter of public interest but was in no way intended to be insulting and, as an opinion piece, cannot be subjected to a test of truth. León has also stated that Meier’s column was the latest in a series of often sloppy and unsubstantiated articles in El Comercio denigrating the former mayor.

Meier, who is part of the Miró Quesada family that owns El Comercio, was reportedly fired by the newspaper in 2015. Her dismissal was due to a different controversial column but during the trial she reportedly alleged that León’s column was a contributing factor.

On March 23, 2016, León was summoned to appear in court on May 3 for the ruling to be read—more than nine months after the trial ended in July 2015. León’s defense called for the sentence to be annulled and a new trial to be held, alleging unjustified delays and irregularities in due process. This request, supported by the Peruvian free expression organization Instituto de Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS), was denied by the court. León intends to appeal.

In a Facebook post dated April 12, 2016, León says: ‘I – we journalists – need the support of everyone with democratic principles: make your opinion known on social media. I can’t explain how I feel except I have the sensation that I’m living through a Kafkaesque situation. If I’m convicted it would set a disastrous precedent for freedom of opinion and press in Peru. I leave it in your hands.’

León has genuine grounds for concern: his sentencing follows hard on the heels of a fellow journalist’s conviction for criminal defamation.

On April 18, 2016, Fernando Valencia Osorio, former editor of the Lima-based daily newspaper Diario 16, was sentenced on appeal to a 20-month suspended prison sentence for defaming former Peruvian president Alan García. He was also ordered to pay 100,000 sols (US$30,595) in damages.

García, who served as president from 1985-90 and from 2006-11, filed a lawsuit in March 2013 accusing Valencia of damaging his reputation in a front-page story that year. In the article, current president Ollanta Humala reportedly criticized delays in completing infrastructure projects under previous administrations and alleged corruption. Although Diario 16 did not name García in the story it used a photo of him in the layout. Valencia was reportedly acquitted in the first instance but was convicted on appeal.

García has been investigated for corruption on numerous occasions since he left office in 2011 but has not been charged and denies any wrongdoing. Diario 16 reportedly has a reputation for criticizing García, and the lawsuit was intended to intimidate the newspaper, Valencia’s lawyer, Carlos Rivera Paz, has said.

Valencia is believed to have appealed the conviction. His lawyers are also expected to submit his case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on the basis that the sentence violates his right to freedom of expression.

The right to freedom of expression and opinion is protected under the Peruvian Constitution (Article 2.4) and international law including the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (Article 19), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 19) and the American Convention on Human Rights (Article 13).

PEN International believes that no writer or journalist should be imprisoned or receive criminal penalties simply for the peaceful expression of their views or practice of their profession and calls for the repeal of criminal defamation laws in all countries.

The Special Rapporteurs for freedom of expression of the United Nations, the Organization of American States and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have stated: “Criminal defamation is not a justifiable restriction on freedom of expression; all criminal defamation laws should be abolished and replaced, where necessary, with appropriate civil defamation laws.”

Peru has committed to decriminalizing defamation on several occasions but this has yet to happen. Most recently, earlier this year the President of the Peruvian Congress proposed removing defamation from the criminal code and making it a civil offense, following a meeting with IPYS and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

According to a recent CPJ study on criminal defamation laws in the Americas, in Peru: ‘In 2011, the permanent commission of Congress approved a bill to amend Article 132 of the Penal Code to remove the imprisonment penalty of the insult and defamation laws and replace it with fines and community service. Efforts to decriminalize defamation and insult laws have not seen any further material developments since then.’

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