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Journalist-sociologist charged over article on powerful figures allegedly linked to paramilitary in Valledupar

(IFJ/IFEX) - Sociologist, journalist and writer Alfredo Molano has been summoned to appear before a judge on 12 August 2008 for a preliminary hearing on charges of libel. IFJ and the Colombian Federation of Journalists (Federación Colombiana de Periodistas, FECOLPER) are concerned by what appears to be a new chapter of judicial harassment that intermittently but continuously seeks to silence critical voices in the media.

In February 2007, Molano published in "El Espectador", one of Colombia's two national newspapers, a column entitled "Araújos et al". For this opinion column, he was reported to the Office of the Prosecutor General (Fiscalía), where criminal charges of libel were filed against him.

His accusers are Andrés Alfredo Araujo Ariza and Andrés Alfredo Rafael Molina Araujo, who are also acting on behalf of Hernán Felipe Araujo Ariza and Maria Mercedes Molina Araujo.

Article 20 of Colombia's Constitution indicates that every person is guaranteed the right "to express and disseminate their thoughts and opinions, to inform others, to receive truthful and impartial information, and to found mass media (. . . ) The right to rectification, in equitable conditions, is also guaranteed. There shall be no censorship."

In a letter sent to various social organisations, Molano states that his accusers said that the only course of action they would accept was the publication in "El Espectador" of a retraction by Molano with its wording to be approved by them. Molano refused because he considered the proposed course of action an attack on freedom of expression.

In the conciliation hearing, Molano said that he was only willing to explain his opinion consulting Valledupar citizens on the historical conduct of the region's notable figures. The plaintiff's lawyers did not accept the proposal.

At the 6 May 2008 public hearing on the formulation of the charges against Molano, one of the arguments raised by the defence was that the "notable figures" of Valledupar include not only the Araujo family, therefore the comments made do not necessary implicate the Araujos. According to the defence, Molano's intention was to paint a portrait of the social and political climate in which the Araujos live and operate.

FIP's Solidarity Centre in Colombia has previously denounced this perverse manner of restricting freedom of expression and access to information: judicial harassment. It expressed this opinion before the Intern-American Commission on Human Rights hearing in 2007, and in its reporting to United Nations in July 2008.

There has recently been in increase in Colombia in the practice of attempting to intimidate journalists through legal actions, which has led to a debate on legal harassment and the need to decriminalise what are commonly referred to as "press crimes".

The climate of polarization and intolerance is now shifting to the judicial sphere, where an attempt is being made to restrict freedom of opinion. This restriction would affect not only the rights of the person currently facing charges - Molano - but also the right of the entire society to be aware of the opinions of a person who has studied, in the field, the reality in many of Colombia's regions. The opinions which are to be punished may be useful for citizens in constructing their own understanding of what is occurring in the country.

This particular way of bringing pressure to bear - judicial harassment - seeks to block those who have resisted the temptation to engage in self-censorship.

Judicial harassment is a weapon against democracy. The IACHR has stated that "freedom of expression is a cornerstone of the very existence of a democratic society." (. . .)

The blog http://molanosomostodos.blogspot.com/ observed the following:

". . . On 25 February 2007, when the Supreme Court began to untangle the umbilical cord tying the electoral bosses of the Atlantic Coast to their respective paramilitary bosses, Alfredo Molano published in 'El Espectador' an opinion column entitled 'Araújos et al' (http://molanosomostodos.blogspot.com/2008/08/arajos-et-al.html), containing a brief historical account of the economic, political and social domination by the coastal notables in that region.

Believing themselves to be alluded to by the writer, whose opinions may be debatable but are respectable, four members of the Araújo family of Valledupar - close relatives of several people under investigation for their alleged ties to paramilitary groups - decided to seek the assistance of the Office of the Prosecutor General to try to silence a point of view distinct from their own. We are therefore before an attack on the free expression of critical thought that must be unequivocally condemned by all of us who believe in democracy and consider press freedom one of its fundamental elements. In Colombia, it is becoming the custom to try to threaten through legal actions all journalists with opinions are inconvenient for the image that the class in power wishes to present of itself." (. . .)

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