By: Mark Fitzgerald
Now that nearly all of Latin America is at least nominally democratic, government violence is no longer the preferred method for intimidating the press. But numerous regimes have found the judge’s gavel can be just as effective as the truncheon for punishing recalcitrant newspapers.
In some nations, officials have initiated so many frivolous lawsuits against news organizations that the phenomenon has its own name: industria de la indemnizacion (“damages industry.”).
In Santiago del Estero, Argentina, some 4,000 women affiliated with the province’s ruling party have filed lawsuits against the daily El Liberal and are seeking $19 million in damages — all because of an article the paper reprinted from another newspaper.
Government officials in traditionally democratic Costa Rica are particular fans of the tactic. Last year, one managed to get court approval for his damage suit because the newspaper Diario Extra “dishonored” his right to reply: The paper had printed the politician’s letter — it just neglected to publicize it on Page One.
“It’s something we’re seeing more of in Latin America,” said Robert Cox, assistant editor of The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., and president of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA). “What they are doing is using the courts to silence the press — and a lot of judges go along with it. The judges are either incredibly ignorant or very hostile to the needs of the press and tremendously antagonistic to freedom of the press.”
The most recent target of this phenomenon is Aldo Zuccolillo, editor and director of the Asuncion, Paraguay, daily ABC Color. On Feb. 13, an appeals court fined Zuccolillo 541 million guaranis — or about $110,000 — in a nation that had an annual per capita income of $1,450 in the year 2000. The legal action against the editor was launched by Sen. Juan Carlos Galaverna, a member of the ruling Colorado Party that sustained Gen. Alfredo Stroessner’s dictatorship for 34 years until democracy arrived in 1989. Galaverna was upset by a Zuccolillo column calling him a “cookie thief,” although the editor was simply quoting a murdered Paraguayan vice president.
The appeals court felt the senator’s pain: The “offensive statements,” it declared, “are not only an affront to the victim’s dignity but also have a negative impact on the collective conscious.”
“In Paraguay, the courts are political,” Zuccolillo said in an interview last week from Miami. “In this democracy, this semidemocracy, this pseudodemocracy, they don’t use physical threats anymore — they use the courts for reprisals and to intimidate. But I won’t be intimidated.”
In the last year, another public official, who reportedly served several jail sentences for fraud, has sued for libel, and, perhaps most remarkably, Zuccolillo was acquitted of a charge filed by a judge.
Zuccolillo’s most recent case has been taken up by several international free-press organizations, including IAPA and Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. His next stop is the Paraguayan Supreme Court, but he’s not optimistic: “They are political judges, too, you know.”