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Magazine editor could face jail sentence over article

(FLIP/IFEX) - In spite of the fact that "Semana" magazine has issued two corrections concerning information it published on allegations about the influence a particular individual has within Colombia's high courts, a judge reviewing a complaint against the magazine has deemed them insufficient. As a result, Alejandro Santos Rubino, the editor of the magazine, could be sentenced to time in jail.

On 28 April 2008, "Semana" published an article entitled "The 'patrons' of justice", in edition number 1356. The article discussed the relationship that an individual named Ascencio Reyes has with the Federal Attorney General (Fiscal General de la Nación ) and various judges of the Supreme Court (Corte Suprema de Justicia) and the Superior Council of the Judiciary (Consejo Superior de la Judicatura). The article referred to the influence that Reyes has in these high circles of the Colombian judiciary and the apparent close relationship he has with various judges. In the article, "Semana" surmised about what the result of this might be, taking into account that Reyes also has commercial connections with an individual accused of drug trafficking.

José Alfredo Escobar Araújo, a Superior Court of the Judiciary judge, filed an appeal for legal protection against Santos, in his role as the editor of "Semana". Escobar Araújo alleged that the article violated his rights of honour, good name and privacy, among others. The appeal highlighted what Escobar Araújo considered to be errors made by the magazine in the publication of the article. On 11 August, a criminal court judge ruled in favour of Escobar Araújo and ordered the magazine to publish a correction. In edition number 1372, "Semana" published the correction in its "Focus" ("Enfoque") section.

On 12 September, however, the Bogotá Judicial District Superior Court, ruled that the correction was insufficient, saying that it must be published "in the same font, colours and size of the original incorrect article in order to be considered a correction notice". In addition, it gave exact instructions for how the correction was to be made and the names of the individuals it was to include.

In compliance with this decision, "Semana" published a new correction in edition number 1380 in its "Current News" ("Actualidad") section. Nevertheless, the judge also deemed the second correction to be insufficient and gave the magazine 24 hours to explain why it had not complied with the ruling. He also insisted that the magazine publish the correction on the cover of its next edition and according to the conditions set out by the court. If the magazine fails to do so, Santos could be charged with contempt of court and face possible arrest, along with a sentence of up to six months and a fine of up to the equivalent of 20 months of salary at minimum wage.

FLIP expresses its concern over the case against "Semana" and Santos. Although FLIP respects judicial decisions and processes, it is surprised that even after two corrections, actions against the magazine continue, and that the disproportionate penalty associated with contempt of court may be applied in the case.

The judges who have ruled on the case are openly disregarding constitutional precedents primarily by demanding exact conditions for the correction and by ordering "Semana" to make clarifications about people who are not involved in the process. The Constitutional Court (Corte Constitucional) has said repeatedly (most recently in sentence T-626 of 2007) that conditions of equality "between the original publication and the clarification or correction do not assume a mathematical correspondence in terms of length, extent or space."

Keeping in mind that this process involves a prominent representative of the judicial branch, it is even more important that judges show independence and attachment to the standards of free expression established by the Constitutional Court. In the Constitutional Court's standards, it is emphasised that between public officials' rights to honour and a good name on one side, and the right of freedom of expression on the other, the top priority should be the latter.

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