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Judge acquits journalists of unjust criminal defamation charges

(WPFC /IFEX) - The following is a 21 December 2007 WPFC letter to Spanish Judge Francisco José Guerrero Suárez:

The Honorable Francisco José Guerrero Suárez
Magistrate
Criminal Court No. 3 of Seville
c/ Menéndez Pelayo, 2
41071 Seville
Spain

Your Honor:

The World Press Freedom Committee (ww.wpfc.org) - an organization representing 45 press freedom groups from throughout the world - wishes to congratulate you for your decision to acquit the editor-inchief of the El Mundo newspaper's Andalusia Edition, Francisco Rosell, and the chief copy editor of that publication, Javier Caravallo, for the charges of criminal defamation against them.

Your decision constitutes a resounding victory for the transparency and accountability of the Andalusian institutions, for press freedom nationally and internationally, and for justice as a whole.

T he plaintiffs, led by the President of the Andalusian autonomous government himself, Manuel Chaves González, tried to silence a newspaper that acted ethically and professionally simply because they found uncomfortable an article based on true facts which uncovered an alleged corruption plot at the highest levels of that government. Also, the plaintiffs demanded exorbitant fines and punitive damages for up to US$3 million, or prison sentences should the defendants fail to pay them.

In our December 6 letter, we made clear the fact that the charges constituted an attack on press freedom and on the human rights of the journalists and, more importantly, of the public themselves. The plaintiffs not only tried to silence these journalists by bringing them to court like common criminals, but they also tried to deny their readers their inalienable right to be informed about matters of public relevance.

Likewise, we underlined that those fundamental rights are consecrated in the Spanish Constitution and the world's most relevant international jurisprudence, including that of the European Court of Human Rights - which the Spanish State acknowledges as binding - and the recommendations of the UN Commission on Human Rights.

The charges stem from a November 2001 El Mundo article written by Mr. Caravallo about the so-called espionage campaign against Juan Manuel López Benjumea, the then CEO of a savings institution, allegedly as a result of his rejecting the Andalusian autonomous government's banking policies. The article stated that Mr. López Benjumea hired a private investigator to learn who was behind this so-called espionage. Reportedly, the detective eventually was able to film the confession of one of the participants in this campaign, who allegedly revealed that he was acting under the orders of three top officials of the Andalusian government, including Mr. Chaves. In an odd turn of events, the two copies of that footage disappeared, one misplaced and the other stolen from the judicial offices where it was kept for safekeeping.

We reiterate that both the jurisprudence of the European Court and the recommendations of the UN Commission on Human Rights support the concept that public officials should expect more, and not less, scrutiny and criticism from the rest of society. This acceptance of being a willing target of the media's slings and arrows also implies public officials should restrain themselves from using these laws to silence criticism directed at them.

Your correct decision is in agreement with such international institutions, which state that criminal defamation and insult laws, in the hands of public officials, can become a potent censorship tool to shield themselves from the scrutiny of the press and the rest of society.

Once again, we believe it is worth mentioning the international human rights jurisprudence, which recommends that all laws that allow criminal penalties for defamation, particularly those that are applied against journalists and media outlets, ought to be decriminalized in all the countries - including Spain - where they exist. Likewise, they maintain that any fines that were to result from civil proceedings ought to be applied in a sensible way so they do not become intimidating weapons that impede the necessary flow of information in a democratic society.

Your Honor, your decision has not only made justice and freed Mrssrs. Rosell y Caravallo from an unacceptable example of abuse of authority and an attempt to silence a free and independent press, but also it has taught a memorable lesson to courthouses around the world where all too often the news media are treated like criminals.

Respectfully,

E. Markham Bench, Executive Director
World Press Freedom Committee

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