Two Latin American journalists who have been prosecuted and persecuted under the defamation laws of their respective democratic governments have recently celebrated muted victories. Alejandra Matus, a Chilean journalist and author who has spent more than two years in self-imposed exile in Miami, has seen Chile’s national security law repealed and the defamation charges against her dropped – but her book remains banned, and she still faces a libel suit brought by a Supreme Court justice. Pablo López, editor of the feisty Caracas, Venezuela weekly La Razón, remains in exile in Costa Rica despite a ruling in his favor by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (ICHR), a tribunal of the Washington-based Organization of American States. In Matus’ case, Supreme Court Justice Servando Jordán ordered an arrest warrant issued against her in April 1999 one day after her book, The Black Book of Chilean Justice, hit the stands. Jordán was offended by her characterization of him in the book as a crude drunk, information corroborated by witnesses (see Quill, September 1999). Matus fled to Miami. The ICHR ruled in favor of Matus’ petition for injunctive relief. After two years of intensive lobbying and pressure from international press organizations, Chile’s Congress passed a new press law that repeals the defamation provisions of the old security law. President Ricardo Lagos signed it on May 18. On June 29, Judge Rubén Ballesteros dropped the charges against Matus. Initially elated, Matus began preparing to visit Chile. “Then I learned with indignation that the judge’s decision did not eliminate the arrest warrant, nor the confiscation of the book,” Matus said. “Based on a technicality, the judge says he couldn’t rescind the warrant or lift the confiscation of the book until his decision is appealed.” On July 6, an appeals court agreed with her and lifted the arrest warrant, but it did not lift the ban on the book’s circulation. Moreover, she still must respond to Jordán’s libel suit. In Chile, a public official does not have to prove actual malice or even inaccuracy. Matus noted that even with the new press law, “there are still laws on the books in Chile that give public officials privileges against public criticism.” She added, however, that the new law is “a major step toward genuine freedom of expression in Chile.” In Venezuela, López was briefly placed under house arrest in July 2000 for refusing to appear in court to answer defamation charges brought against him by Tobías Carrero, a wealthy friend and political supporter of President Hugo Chávez and other high-ranking officials. He went into hiding in August 2000 when he was summoned back to court after the judge in the case refused to allow him to present evidence that what La Razón published about Carrero’s alleged influence peddling was true (see Quill, September 2000). On Feb. 8, the ICHR ruled in favor of López’s petition for injunctive relief. López’s attorney, Omar Estacio, said that he had presented the ICHR resolution to the Venezuelan attorney general’s office, to the judge in the case, to the national ombudsman and to the president’s office. “Four months passed, and all we received were evasions,” Estacio said. Moreover, Estacio said, the judge refused to allow him to take further action regarding the ICHR resolution “unless López turns himself in.” As in the Matus case in Chile, the López case has brought international pressure on the Chávez government. In March, at its mid-year meeting in Fortaleza, Brazil, the Inter American Press Association adopted a resolution condemning the Venezuelan government for various acts of press intimidation, specifically citing the López case.
Robert Buckman, Ph.D., is an associate professor of communication at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and a specialist on Latin American media.