By: Mark Fitzgerald
The free-press organizations Inter American Press Association (IAPA) and Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said press freedom has taken a step backwards in democratizing Paraguay with a national Supreme Court ruling that director of the Asunci?n daily newspaper ABC Color must pay hefty damages for criminal defamation of a ruling party senator.
Under the legal standard in Paraguay, public figures do not need to prove allegedly defamatory statements are false, or that the libel defendant published the statements with reckless disregard as to whether they were true or false.
Miami-based IAPA called for Paraguay and other Latin American nations to adopt a “real malice” or “malice aforethought” standard, essentially the “actual malice” concept enshrined in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1964 New York Times Co. v. Sullivan decision.
In the ruling handed down Dec. 28, the Paraguayan Supreme Court ordered ABC Color Director Aldo Zuccolillo to pay a fine of 1.3 billion guaran?es, about $ 200,000, for the alleged libel of Juan Carlos Galaverna, a Senator from the ruling Colorado Party Gen. Alfredo Stroessner used to operate his dictatorship for 34 years until democracy arrived in 1989.
Paraguay’s per capita income, according to the July 2005 World Bank Operational Manual, is $1,170.
Through the history of ABC Color, Zuccolillo has been a target of government harassment, first by the blunt means of dictatorship, and later by the more subtle techniques of democracy. The newspaper, which he founded in 1967, was shut down by Stroessner in 1984, and reopened only after the strongman was ousted from government.
Galaverna has been pursuing Zuccolillo for years. When E&P first wrote about the case in March 2002, the appeals court had just ruled that a Zuccolillo column about the senator “are not only an affront to the victim’s dignity but also have a negative impact on the collective conscious.”
And the senator is not the only one targeting the newspaper:
Zuccolillo still faces 18 lawsuits because of the paper’s reporting on official corruption, according to CPJ.
“It is alarming that a newspaper that stood up to a military dictatorship is being bullied by a barrage of lawsuits in a democracy,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said in a prepared statement. “We call on Paraguayan authorities to stop harassing ABC Color and scrap criminal defamation laws immediately.”
In addition to objecting to a Zuccolillo column that quoted a former politician describing Galaverna as a “cookie thief,” the senator alleged he was libeled and defamed by articles in 1997 and 1998 that, according to IAPA, accused him of “accepting free stays at the Guaran? Hotel in Asunci?n; being on a list of high-risk bank loan borrowers, influence peddling; and giving political
protection to the then-president of the National Workers’ Bank, who was later sentenced to 10 years in jail for bleeding the bank dry.”
IAPA said the Supreme Court decision limits the ability of independent journalists to investigate official corruption. “We fear that such court rulings as these could lead to self-censorship by the media and individual journalists, thus jeopardizing the public’s right to know,” said Gonzalo Marroqu?n, editor of the daily Prensa Libre in Guatemala City and chairman of the IAPA’s Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information.
Zuccolillo intends to appeal the Supreme Court decision to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C., CPJ reported, citing an interview with ABC Color’s judicial correspondent, Carlos Ben?tez. The commission can refer cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica for binding decisions, CPJ noted.
In September 2004, CPJ said, the hemispheric court ruled that the criminal defamation conviction of a Paraguayan politician, Ricardo Canese, violated international law, including the American Convention on Human Rights, which Paraguay has ratified. The month before, the court also overturned the criminal defamation conviction of a Costa Rican journalist, CPJ noted, ruling that critics of public officials must have “leeway in order for ample debate to take place on matters of public interest.”