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IAPA labels call for imprisonment of journalist, seizure of his book a "surprising step backward"

(IAPA/IFEX) - Miami, August 9, 2010 - The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) today described as surprising and "a serious backward step for press freedom" a call by a public prosecutor for Uruguayan journalist Alvaro Alfonso to be sent to prison for 24 months for libel and for his book "Secretos del Partido Comunista" (Secrets of the Communist Party) to be confiscated.

In an August 2 statement, the criminal prosecutor for the Uruguayan 10th District, Ana María Tellechea Reck, demanded the "seizure" of all editions of the book published in July 2008 and that the journalist be sent to prison on a charge of having libeled former Montevideo provincial congressman for the Communist Party of Uruguay (PCU), Carlos Alberto Tutzó López.

IAPA President Alejandro Aguirre, editor of the Miami, Florida, Spanish-language newspaper Diario Las Américas, declared, "judgments of this kind take us back to the worst times that press freedom faced in the Americas, when dictatorships used the confiscation and burning of books as a means of censorship." He added that the prosecutor's action, moreover, is inconsistent with principles approved last year by Uruguayan legislators making criticism by the press no longer a criminal offense.

The prosecutor ordered the seizure because of a paragraph on page 181 of the investigative report saying that the former congressman, arrested in 1977 by agents of the military dictatorship that ruled Uruguay from 1973 to 1985, was a "collaborator" with his jailers. Tutzó López denied this and filed a libel suit.

Regarding the call for imprisonment, Robert Rivard, chairman of the IAPA's Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, and editor of the San Antonio Express-News, Texas, expressed surprise "that there are still public prosecutors calling for journalists to be sent to jail when in June last year a law was enacted which made defamation and libel no longer criminal offenses when what is referred to are matters of pubic interest and public personages, as is evident in this case."

Alfonso based his information on military sources of the time and on "doubts" that he said persist in the Communist Party concerning Tutzó López' conduct.

In her statement, in addition to calling for 24 months' imprisonment for the journalist, the prosecutor held that the offense he was being accused of "continues to be committed through the book that the accused authored" and therefore she asked the judge in the case, Rolando Vomero, to "order the seizure of all the books published that contain the mentioned defamatory remarks."

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