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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In Peru, courts ‘used like whips’ to silence journalists

The journalist Paola Ugaz in Lima, Peru, on Jan. 14, 2022. Ugaz has faced repeated lawsuits and a criminal inquiry after revealing allegations of sexual and physical abuse in an elite Catholic society in Peru.

By Julie Turkewitz and Mitra Taj

The police raided a reporter’s house after he investigated an elite Catholic society. A court ordered journalists’ assets frozen following a defamation complaint from a powerful figure. A sports journalist called the head of a soccer club inept and was sentenced to a year in prison.

And then, last week, a judge sentenced a Peruvian journalist to two years in prison and imposed a $100,000 fine following a defamation lawsuit brought by a powerful, wealthy politician.

Media experts called the decision the most direct threat to freedom of expression in Peru in years. And, they said, it was part of a worrying trend across the region — but particularly strong in Peru — in which powerful figures are using the courts to intimidate and punish journalists who investigate them.

“It absolutely sidesteps the fundamental principles of freedom of expression,” Ricardo Uceda, who leads the Press and Society Institute of Peru, said of the ruling.

The politician in this case, César Acuña, is the subject of a book by the journalist, Christopher Acosta, called “Plata Como Cancha,” meaning roughly “Cash by the Bucket.”

In the book, Acosta quotes multiple sources who accuse Acuña, a multimillionaire who ran for president and now heads a political party, of buying votes, misusing public funds and plagiarizing. In his decision, the judge in the case, Raúl Jesús Vega, said that nearly three dozen phrases in the book were defamatory.

Rather than address the veracity of the statements, Jesús Vega criticized the journalist for failing, in his assessment, to sufficiently back them up.

The judge also found Jerónimo Pimentel, the director of the book’s publishing house, guilty. And he held Pimentel and the publisher, Penguin Random House in Peru, also responsible for paying the $100,000 fine, which will go to Acuña.

Acosta will not go to prison — many shorter sentences are suspended in Peru — and the parties are appealing the decision.

But the legal action dropped like an anvil on the news media in Peru, with many saying it is sure to have a chilling effect on future reporting.

Acosta, who will likely face a lengthy appeal process, said that he sees the lawsuit coming “not just from a desire to harass a particular journalist, but to send a message to journalists across the country.”

That message was clear, he said: “Look what can happen to you if you mess with me.”

The case involving “Cash by the Bucket” is particularly worrying, said media experts, because in their analysis, Jesús Vega has significantly raised the bar for reporting, suggesting it is not enough to interview and quote several people with knowledge of the matter when making an allegation.

Rather, advocates say, the judge’s language in the sentencing suggests that to be fit for publication, information must have been vetted by an authority, such as a congressional investigation.

But a journalist should not be convicted of defamation if evidence shows that he or she has done due diligence to verify published allegations, said Miguel Jugo, a lawyer for Peru’s national journalism association.

Unlike in the United States and Mexico, where defamation is typically a civil matter, in Peru it is a criminal offense, defined as the act of publicly attributing to another person “a fact, a quality or a conduct that could harm his honor or reputation.”

In the “Cash by the Bucket” case, said Jugo, the judge is claiming that Acosta did not do this due diligence — something that Acosta and many of his allies dispute.

Acosta is the head of investigations at Latina Noticias, an important television channel in Lima. All of the allegations in his book, he told the Committee to Protect Journalists, are direct quotes that came from interviews, news articles, attorney general’s investigations, or legal and congressional testimony.

Other nations in the region have similar laws, said Natalie Southwick at the Committee to Protect Journalists. But, she said, Peru has “seen the most consistent convictions in criminal defamation cases.”

According to Peru’s national journalism association, instances in which the judicial system was used against reporters rose to 29 a year from 18 a year between 2020 and 2018.

These defamation suits come after years of economic growth in Peru that expanded public coffers — and created new opportunities for self-dealing among the ruling class.

In recent years, corruption scandals involving former presidents, judges and lawmakers have fueled a political free-for-all, with clashes between Congress and the executive branch and mass protests leading the country to cycle through four presidents in the past year.

Journalists have uncovered much of the wrongdoing.

But powerful figures have pushed back, often using the judicial system, and in many cases succeeding.

Acuña, 69, the magnate who brought the suit against Acosta, became mayor of the city of Trujillo just as Acosta, now 38, was beginning his career as an investigative reporter in the same city.

Over the years, Acuña made his wealth as the owner of for-profit universities and served as a congressman and a governor.

Acuña went on to run for president in 2016 and 2021. He was barred from the election in first run after he was caught on camera promising to distribute cash in a poor neighborhood.

By then he had already fallen in the polls, after local media reported that he was suspected of plagiarizing parts of his doctoral thesis and a book written by a former professor.

The country’s intellectual property protection department eventually found that Acuña had violated copyright rules in both cases and ordered him to pay fines. But the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, which had published the thesis, decided after an investigation that it had not found sufficient cause to retract it.

Despite his decline in popularity, Acuña’s party has increased its presence in Congress. Last year, it helped impeach former President Martín Vizcarra, and it is seen as crucial to the political survival of the current president, Pedro Castillo.

Acuña denied the charges in the book and said that media advocates were “exaggerating” the possible impact of his lawsuit.

“I say to my journalist friends, ‘Don’t be afraid,’” he said, “‘as long as you stick to your code, your journalistic code.’”

That journalistic code, in his view, includes a responsibility to “unite Peruvians, not divide them, like is happening now.”

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