Letters   |   Peru

Peru must take steps to decriminalize defamation

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August 4, 2011

Ollanta Humala Tasso
President of the Republic of Peru
Lima, Peru

Dear President Humala:

We congratulate you on your first week in office as president of Peru and would like to take this opportunity to urge you to sign into law a recent bill passed by Congress that eliminates prison terms for defamation, an important first step toward the decriminalization of libel in your country. At a time when archaic criminal defamation laws are being used by officials to punish critical reporters, we call on you to uphold your pledge to protect freedom of expression by signing this bill and promoting the necessary changes toward a complete decriminalization of libel, leaving redress for this offense to civil courts.

On July 21, Congress introduced changes in the penal code that eliminate jail terms for defamation and increase fines and community service as sanctions for libel. The bill is ready for you to sign into law.

Defamation provisions have frequently been used to silence critical journalists, CPJ research shows. On July 6, reporter Hans Francisco Andrade Chávez was convicted of criminal defamation because of a March story he aired on an official. Andrade Chávez, who worked for a television station in the city of Chepén, interviewed a member of a political party who claimed that a Chepén official, Juan José Vásquez Romero, had threatened her life. On March 31, Vásquez Romero accused the journalist of defamation, alleging he had damaged his reputation, Peruvian media said. The court ruled that the assertions made in the story were untrue, although the written decision cited no supporting evidence. A judge sentenced the journalist to two years in jail and a fine of 4,000 sols (US$1,430), the Peruvian press reported. Andrade Chávez, who has not yet been imprisoned, told CPJ he had appealed the conviction.

A second Peruvian journalist, Paul Segundo Garay Ramírez, host of "Polémica" on television station Visión 47 and "La Voz del Pueblo" on radio station La Exitosa, has been in jail since April 19 for defaming a prosecutor in Coronel Portillo, the local media reported. In his complaint, the prosecutor presented an undated radio clip in which, he alleged, Garay had insinuated that he was engaging in corruption and had sexually harassed young litigants, the journalist told CPJ. Garay denies that the voice on the tape is his--though neither side presented any evidence in the trial to prove their claims--and believes the charges were in reprisal for his reporting on corruption. He was sentenced to three years' imprisonment and a fine of 20,000 sols (US$7,150). On July 27, a court of appeals in Ucayali upheld the sentence but reduced his prison term to 18 months. Garay is currently serving his term in the Miguel Castro Castro Prison in Lima. He is also a witness in a case against a former provincial mayor in the murder of another journalist in 2004.

In 2010, two other provincial reporters were charged with criminal defamation in Peru. Alejandro Carrascal Carrasco, editor of the Bagua-based newspaper Nor Oriente, and San Lorenzo radio journalist Oswaldo Pereyra Moreno were both jailed last year on defamation charges stemming from their reporting. Peru's Supreme Court overturned the decision in Carrascal's case and freed the journalist, and Pereyra was released after an appeals court voided the lower court's decision on procedural grounds.

In April, CPJ participated in an event at the offices of the regional press group Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS) in Lima, in which you said that you would respect the free exercise of journalism and wouldn't interfere with or sue critical journalists. We were encouraged that you reaffirmed this commitment when you took office on July 28 by promising to be a "defender of human rights, freedom of the press, and freedom of expression."

There is a growing regional consensus that civil remedies provide adequate redress for cases of alleged defamation and journalists shouldn't be criminally prosecuted for libel. In December 2009, the Costa Rican Supreme Court eliminated prison terms for criminal defamation. One month earlier, in November 2009, the Argentine Congress repealed criminal defamation provisions in the penal code regarding information of public interest. And in April 2009, Brazil's Supreme Federal Tribunal annulled the 1967 Press Law, a measure that had imposed harsh penalties for libel and slander.

A mounting body of international legal opinion affirms that public officials should not enjoy protection from scrutiny. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights' Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, approved in October 2000, says, "Public officials are subject to greater scrutiny by society. Laws that penalize offensive expressions directed at public officials restrict freedom of expression and the right to information."

While the bill recently approved in Congress includes disproportionately high fines and long spans of community service as penalties for libel, CPJ believes it represents a step in the right direction to protecting freedom of expression and honoring your promise. We call on you to enact the bill so that Peruvian journalists can work without the threat of imprisonment. The enactment of this bill will also allow the release of Paul Garay from prison, his lawyer has said. We urge you to bring Peru's press laws in line with international standards on freedom of expression by promoting legislation that will fully decriminalize defamation.

Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your response.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director

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