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Judge rules to move case against journalists in Bolivia to Press Tribunal

In a welcome development in Bolivia last month, a judge ruled that criminal charges of espionage, complicity and disclosure of state secrets against two journalists be dropped and the case be moved to the country's Press Tribunal.

On May 7, Ricardo Aguilar, a journalist with the Bolivian daily La Razón, and Claudia Benavente, the newspaper's editor in chief, were called to testify at a court in La Paz in relation to an article titled “How the maritime lawsuit won out over the idea of unilateral action,” published in their publication on April 13.

The article in question detailed the ongoing dispute between the Bolivian and Chilean governments about Bolivia's access to the Pacific Ocean.

On May 7, Jhonny Machicado, the judge overseeing the case, informed the journalists of the charges filed against them on April 22 and ordered Aguilar and Benavente to reveal their sources of information, in clear breach of provisions guaranteeing source confidentiality in the country's Press Law.

Commenting on the case, Juan León Cornejo, president of the National Press Association (ANP) in Bolivia, told IPI last May, that no journalist had been forced to reveal their sources since the country's Press Law had been enacted in 1925. While Aguilar and Benavente refused to reveal their sources, their defence attorneys argued that on the basis of the Press Law, their case should not be considered by a criminal court but rather the Press Tribunal.

On Aug. 5, Judge Virginia Janeth Crespo Ibáñez agreed with the defence and dismissed the charges against the journalists. At the same time, Crespo Ibáñez ruled that the case should be moved to the Press Tribunal.

“We welcome the judge's decision, which sets an important precedent in Bolivia's respect of the rights of journalists,” said Barbara Trionfi, IPI Press Freedom Manager. “Under the country's Press Law, the journalists will not face criminal charges or jail time, hence removing the chilling effect that any type of criminal prosecution has on journalists covering issues of public interest.”

While the trial will reconvene at the Press Tribunal over the next few weeks, Benavente has opted to not respond to any questions directly about her case. La Razón general manager, Marcelo Diaz, told IPI last month that the justice system determined that criminal proceedings are not appropriate to evaluate claims made against journalists since Bolivia's Press Tribunal is still active.

The Press Tribunal will determine if the Press Law was violated by Benavente and Aguilar.

“The sanctions that the journalists may face at the Press Tribunal are rather ethical and moral," León Cornejo said. “The amount of the fines imposed is minimal.”

Shortly after the ruling, the country's general prosecutor said that despite the recent decision, he will continue an investigation to find the source, allegedly a government employee.

“Any legal action that tries to affect the 'journalist-source' relationship could deter sources from coming forward with information," Diaz noted.

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