Freedom of Expression

Press Release R24/12







Washington, D.C., March 1, 2012 — The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expresses its concern regarding the 18 month prison sentence given to journalist Luis Agustín González, handed down on February 29 by the Criminal Chamber of the Superior Court of Cundinamarca in Colombia.


According to the information received, Luis Agustín González was found guilty of defamation and acquitted of calumny.  In addition to the prison sentence, González must pay the equivalent of 17 minimum-wage monthly salaries (around US$5,000) The journalist, who is the director of the newspaper Cundinamarca Democrática, had been sued by former governor Leonor Serrano de Camargo, who alleged that the publication of an editorial in the 44th edition of the paper in 2008, calling into question Serrano’s candidacy for the Senate, harmed her honor and good name.


In September 2012, the reporter had been convicted of both crimes by a judge of first instance. On October 15, 2011, President Juan Manuel Santos expressed that he opposed the verdict and strongly stated that the expression of critical opinions against public officials should not be a crime.  Similarly, the Constitutional Court of Colombia has indicated that when judges consider cases involving alleged defamation and calumny that implicate public officials, they should interpret the offenses narrowly in a way that favors "an expansive view of the freedom of expression," which has a privileged status in the Colombian legal order.  González announced his intention to challenge the appellate decision by filing an extraordinary remedy of cassation.


The Office of the Special Rapporteur has expressed its concern over the application of the crime of defamation against individuals who have limited themselves to denouncing or expressing opinions critical of those who hold or have held public office. Individuals who hold or have held public office have a duty to withstand a higher degree of criticism and scrutiny, precisely because they voluntarily assume the administration of important public responsibilities.


Principle ten of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights establishes 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."


The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression was created by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to encourage the defense of the right to freedom of thought and expression in the hemisphere, given the fundamental role this right plays in consolidating and developing the democratic system.