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Concern over judicial harassment of "ABC Color" newspaper

(WPFC/IFEX) - Washington, USA, July 18, 2011 - The World Press Freedom Committee of Freedom House - an organization bringing together 43 press freedom groups from throughout the world - denounces the unrelenting judicial harassment that for many years has been inflicted on the Paraguayan daily ABC Color, including the recent criminal defamation case against journalist Sandra López.

The new attempt to silence ABC Color seemed to culminate on June 30, when Judge Manuel Aguirre acquitted López in the criminal defamation suit brought forward by celebrity politician and entrepreneur Zunilda Castiñeira, who had felt her honor insulted by an opinion article published by the journalist in 2009. The plaintiff had demanded two and a half years in prison and the payment of US$100,000 in reparations.

The article linked Castiñeira with several allegedly corrupt initiatives, including preferential treatment of her telecommunications company by state regulators and her family ties to two alleged drug traffickers, including her former husband, who was murdered.

Judge Aguirre finally ruled that the López article was based on "truthful information that the defendant's attorneys have corroborated" and added that the journalist "had not overstepped the limits [of press freedom] because she had not affected Castiñeira's honor or reputation."

The plaintiff, however, has vowed to appeal the sentence and threatened López by saying, "I have the wisdom of a snake" and "when it comes to defending my honor [ . . . ], my venom can be lethal."

"The charges against Sandra López are a new example of the abuse of Paraguay's Criminal Code by officials and other public figures who feel attacked by the news media's scrutiny," said Javier Sierra, WPFC-FH's projects director. "This judicial harassment is taking a very heavy toll on the news media's capacity to fulfill their obligation to keep the public informed about matters of social relevance."

ABC Color, Paraguay's largest and most influential daily, has been the favorite target of the country's public figures. In 2010 alone, the newspaper and its staff were the subject of at least eight criminal defamation suits, according to Freedom House's Freedom of the Press Report. This abuse has reached such extremes that Paraguay is just one single point from falling into the "Not Free" category of the Freedom House ranking, right next to countries such as Pakistan, Liberia and Cambodia.

Also, this judicial harassment against ABC Color and other news media violates the standards and jurisprudence of the Inter-American system. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has stipulated the following: "In a democratic society, public officials are more exposed to the rest of society's scrutiny and criticism. This different protection standard is explained by their voluntary acceptance of a more demanding scrutiny. Their activities, therefore, fall outside the private sphere and enter the public debate sphere. The reason for this more demanding standard has to do with his or her public activities and not with personal qualities."

Castiñeira and a long list of officials and public figures who have taken ABC Color to court need to understand that by accepting to be part of the country's public life, they also need to accept the news media's scrutiny into their behavior.

WPFC of FH urges the court that would preside over the possible appeal of the decision to again declare the case null and void and the Congress to follow the example of several other Latin American countries and the recommendations of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to decriminalize defamation sanctions.

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