9 May, 2016: Peruvian journalist Rafael León Rodríguez convicted of Criminal Defamation
“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.” (Facebook post from Rafo Leon, dated 12 April 2016)
Though May 3 was UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day, it was arguably just the opposite for Peruvian journalist and author Rafael León Rodríguez, (known as Rafo León). On this day, León was summoned for sentencing in response to a criminal defamation case brought against him in 2014 by Martha Meier Miró Quesada, then general editor and columnist for El Comercio, one of Peru’s leading newspapers.
León was found guilty of defamation, given a one year suspended sentence, and ordered to pay $1,800 in damages to Meier. The suspended sentence is subject to Rodríguez’s completion of one year of ‘good behavior,’ requiring him to report regularly to the authorities and to request permission before leaving the country. This conviction and sentencing have arrived more than nine months after the trial ended in July 2015; León’s defence, supported by the Peruvian free expression organisation Instituto de Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS), called for the sentence to be annulled and a new trial to be held, alleging unjustified delays and irregularities in due process. This request was denied by the court.
León is known for his columns for the Lima-based weekly newsmagazine Caretas, as well as his travel accounts and short stories. Though his circumstances may be unique, his position as a targeted journalist is unfortunately not. León’s case forms just one piece of the larger picture, in which criminal defamation restricts freedom of expression for journalists around the globe.
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.”
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).
Although the Peruvian state has publicly committed to decriminalizing defamation, and reducing it to a civil offense, new policies and protections have yet to be implemented through legislation. Similar struggles face writers in Europe, where 23 of 28 EU Member States continue to have criminalized defamation laws. As Joe Glanville reports, “An alarming number of states impose excessive criminal penalties for insulting royalty—it can get you six years in jail in Sweden—and there are similarly worrying consequences for insulting a head of state”.
Norwegian PEN and the Norwegian WiPC support the stance of PEN International, wherein, “convicting León of criminal defamation for an opinion piece on a matter of public interest would be a violation of his right to freedom of expression and opinion protected under national and international law”. We therefore urge the Peruvian authorities to urgently overturn León’s conviction and to remove defamation from the State’s criminal code. To read our letter to the Peruvian authorities, click here: Link
To send messages of solidarity to Rafo León via Tamsin Mitchell: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information about current criminal defamation practices in the EU, see Glanville’s articles at: https://europe.newsweek.com/why-we-urgently-need-reform-criminal-defamation-law-452587?rm=eu
For news on English PEN and ILI’s endeavours to decriminalize defamation in Europe, see: https://www.englishpen.org/press/criminal-defamation-in-the-eu/
Article written by: Iva Gavanski, Advisor for Norwegian WiPC and Norwegian PEN. 9 May, 2016.