Freedom of Expression

Press Release R62/16

Office of the Special Rapporteur Expresses Concern over a New Criminal Conviction for Defamation against a Journalist in Peru

May 6, 2016

Washington, D.C. - The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expresses its concern over the criminal conviction handed down in Peru on May 3 against journalist Rafael "Rafo" León for the offense of aggravated defamation pursuant to a complaint filed by fellow journalist and former director of the newspaper El Comercio, Martha Meier Miró Quesada.
According to the information available, a criminal court in Lima sentenced León to one year in prison. The sentence was suspended on the condition that he report to court authorities on a monthly basis and report any change of address. He was also ordered to pay a fine of 6,000 soles (US $1,800).

Meier Miró Quesada, who is a relative of the owners of the newspaper El Comercio, had brought the case against León after he published a column in the magazine Caretas in July, 2014, entitled "What Do We Do with the Cousin?" ["¿Qué hacemos con la primita?"], in which he wrote satirically about an article Meier Miró Quesada had written a few days earlier and questioned the basis for her statements against the former Mayor of Lima, Susana Villarán.

"She insults Mayor Susana Villarán without providing a single argument to evidence a discrepancy or misunderstanding";  "it was a string of thinly-veiled, cheap sarcastic remarks"; "I am sure that the heads of the newspaper now want nothing more than to distance themselves from the rebel cousin who has had such a negative impact since she took the position"; and "now is the time to get rid of someone who engages in irresponsible journalism and more" are some of the phrases written by León that were included in the judgment as evidence of harm to Meier Miró Quesada’s honor.

This is the second criminal defamation conviction handed down in Peru this year; journalist Fernando Valencia Osorio was sentenced to one year and eight months in prison (suspended) on April 18 for the alleged aggravated defamation of former President Alan García.

The case law of the Inter-American System has repeatedly recognized that freedom of expression grants—to both the directors of media outlets and the journalists that work for them—the right to disseminate information and ideas of all kinds, especially on public interest issues.

As argued by the Inter-American Court in various decisions, when evaluating situations where subsequent liabilities can be imposed, judges should strike a balance between the respect of the right to honor and the reputation of others with the value of the right to an open debate on issues of public interest in a democratic society, and the chilling effect of criminal sanctions on the exercise of the right to freedom of expression. Moreover, in the case of public figures it is always possible to have greater access to the media to respond to criticism and offer explanations.

The IACHR, based on the American Convention on Human Rights, established more than a decade ago the use of criminal law to punish manifestations on matters of public interest and public officials is disproportionate and therefore violates the right to freedom of expression. Thereon, Principle 10 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, adopted in the year 2000 by the IACHR, established that the "protection of a person’s reputation should only be guaranteed through civil sanctions in those cases in which the person offended is a public official, a public person or a private person who has voluntarily become involved in matters of public interest. In addition, in these cases, it must be proven that in disseminating the news, the social communicator had the specific intent to inflict harm, was fully aware that false news was disseminated, or acted with gross negligence in efforts to determine the truth or falsity of such news."

Accordingly, the Commission calls upon the State of Peru to adhere to the strictest international standards on freedom of expression so as to ensure the right of journalists and media outlets to practice journalism without improper interventions, and the right of society as a whole to be informed, and as a consequence, to promote the reform of domestic criminal legislation that punishes speech that relates to public interest or directed at public officials.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression is an office created by the IACHR to stimulate hemispheric defense of the right to freedom of thought and expression, considering its fundamental role in the consolidation and development of the democratic system.