Colombian Supreme Court acquits journalist charged with insulting politician in opinion column
Luis Agustín González had faced 18-month prison sentence
By: Scott Griffen, Press Freedom Adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean
VIENNA, July 17, 2013 – Nearly two years after being sentenced to prison for insulting a local politician in a newspaper column, Colombian journalist Luis Agustín González was acquitted last week of all charges by the country’s Supreme Court.
In its ruling, dated July 10, the Court stated that “in terms of freedom of expression, freedom of political opinion enjoys a great degree of protection, precisely because of the aims it pursues and because of the exposed situation in which public officials find themselves”.
“We fully welcome the Colombian Supreme Court’s ruling, which respects the notion that the media must be allowed to freely report and comment on the actions of politicians in a democracy,” International Press Institute (IPI) Press Freedom Manager Barbara Trionfi said. “The Court appears to agree that, without an empowered press, the public would be unable to hold government leaders accountable for their actions.”
González, editor of the regional newspaper Cundinamarca Democrática, had been sentenced to 20 months in prison in September 2011 by a municipal judge in Fusagasuga, just outside of Bogotá, for criminal insult and libel after publishing an article critical of a former governor and senator, Leonor Serrano de Camargo. In February 2012, the Superior Court of Cundinamarca overturned the libel conviction, but upheld the insult verdict and modified the prison term to 18 months and 18 days, IPI previously reported.
Last fall, lawyers representing Colombia’s attorney general argued before the Supreme Court that the accusations made by González in the article, a 2008 column entitled “No Mas!” (No More!), in which the journalist referred to Serrano de Camargo as a “political intriguer” who had ruled the province through “arrogance” and “despotism”, did not constitute injuria or “criminal insult,” referring to the accusations instead as an expression of “disapproval.”
In a press release, the Press Freedom Foundation (FLIP), a leading Colombian NGO, stated that the Supreme Court’s decision “marks an important precedent in the protection of freedom of expression in the face of the crime of insult in Colombia [and] reiterates, once more, the importance of this right for the strengthening of democracy”.
González, in an interview with the Colombian newspaper El Espectador, expressed satisfaction with the ruling, which he said would open the door for people to express their opinion. Speaking on the situation of journalists in Colombia’s provinces, he added: “There is a lot of self-censorship, often because they live off perks they get from whoever is in power.”
The Supreme Court emphasised that its decision applied only to this particular case and that the right to honour remains protected under Colombian law.
IPI advocates for the repeal of all criminal defamation laws globally, including those prohibiting insult (in the Spanish-speaking world, generally known as injuria), believing that such laws can be abused by prominent figures to silence criticism and that defamation can be better handled by civil or administrative procedures.
Trionfi added: “We urge the Colombian government to consider the complete removal of all criminal defamation and insult laws in line with international and regional standards on freedom of expression.”
Next week, IPI plans to release a report on its April 2013 mission to the Caribbean, which focused on the repeal of criminal defamation laws in Antigua and Barbuda, Guyana, Suriname, the Dominican Republic, and Trinidad and Tobago.