Peru: Blogger Sentenced for Defamation of Former Politician

On Friday, October 29th, the court's sentence was handed down [es] for the offensive libel suit brought by the former government minister and parliament member Jorge Mufarech Nemy [es] against the law school graduate and blogger José Alejandro Godoy [es]. The judge's ruling calls for a suspended sentence of three years imprisonment, commuted to a three-year probation as long as Godoy fulfills additional obligations: a payment of 350 thousand soles (approx. $125,000) and 120 days of community service. The reaction from the media and bloggers has been immediate [es].

The case began April, 14, 2009, when Godoy published a post [es] about the alleged threats made by Mufarech toward a parliamentary advisor. As a result, and as chronicled by the same blogger in another post from July 2009 [es], Mufarech sent him a notarized letter [es] requiring the removal of certain information because it was believed to be false. The claim was made on the basis of article 2, point 6 of the constitution of the Republic of Perú. If Godoy did not take down the information, Mufarech would take appropriate legal action. Godoy, instead of taking down the information, published comments by Mufarech on three cases where he had been charged with corruption. Godoy refused to take down the post (although what had been asked was only the removal of some information in the post) because he considered it at odds with freedom of expression. He also replied to Mufarech with a notarized letter of his own [es]. When faced with this in August 2009, Mufarech sued Godoy for a million dollars [es].

This is a key paragraph from the original post that sparked this legal firestorm:

Una de las mayores joyas políticas de la primera parte de esta década es Jorge Mufarech Nemy. Ex Ministro de Trabajo con Fujimori y ex parlamentario de Perú Posible, este político tres grandes perlas durante su gestión: evasión tributaria por la compra de un Jaguar, impulsar medidas arancelarias para favorecer a sus empresas, gestionar con José Francisco Crousillat mejores tratos de los inspectores laborales para América Televisión en los 90’s y, por supuesto, su persecusión contra Fernando Rospigliosi.

One of the greatest political stars of the first part of this decade is Jorge Mufarech Nemy [es]. The former Minister of Labor under Fujimori (a former President both celebrated and vilified in Perú) and former parliament member of the party Perú Posible, had three shining achievements during his watch: tax evasion on a Jaguar car purchase [es], pushing for import/export measures that favored his own companies [es], negotiating one of the best labor agreements in the 90's for América Telvisión with José Francisco Crousillat [es] (who among others in the 90's took large bribes to favorably report on the Fujimori regime) and, of course, his persecution against Fernando Rospigliosi and his allegations against Mufarech [es].

Curiously it wasn't even the main theme of the post (the threats against a parliamentary advisor) that caused the lawsuit, rather it was the assertions made about Mufarech's “shining achievements” while in office. The media and blogs have written that the lawsuit was because of the links added by the blogger to document what he said [es]. But this popular explanation isn't shared by everyone, especially among legal experts. The lawyer Miguel Morachimo writes in his blog Blawyer:

La Resolución declara la culpabilidad de Godoy porque considera que las utilización de las frases “joya” y “tres grandes perlas” respecto del querellante resultan difamatorias. Podemos discutir bastante sobre el fondo, pero no podemos negar que ese es el motivo que aparentemente sustenta la decisión. Para la Jueza, no importa que se hayan linkeado o no las noticias periodísticas correspondientes. Según su criterio, lo verdaderamente ofensivo no es que se mencionen las investigaciones por corrupción anteriores (lo que sí quedaría acreditado con los links) sino que se califique como una “joya” al querellante y que se diga que sus antecedentes judiciales son “tres perlas”.

The judge declared Godoy guilty because she considers the use of the phrases “star” and “three shining achievements,” in reference to the plaintiff, to be offensive libel. We can discuss this at length but we can't deny that this is the reasoning underpinning the judge's decision. For the judge, it doesn't matter if they were hyper-linked to actual published articles by journalists. According to her legal approach, the true offense isn't that prior investigations into corruption are mentioned (via links) but that the plaintiff is called a “star” because of the three past cases of corruption, introduced as “shining achievements”.

Blogger Morachimo, besides being against the sentencing because he feels it excessive (the official sentencing can be read here [es]), also discusses an important point. How will this judgment become a precedent for new, similar cases?

Lo que la Resolución dice es que se han colocado calificativos negativos a una persona con el ánimo de injuriarla. Por eso no toma el argumento del “reporte fiel” ni valora la libertad de la prensa para informar sobre hechos públicos, porque para la Jueza el problema no son los links sino los adjetivos con los que se presentan los links. Por ende, ese fallo no podría ser utilizado en otro proceso –ni como doctrina– para argumentar que uno es responsable del contenido difamatorio que puedan albergar otras páginas web a las que enlaza.

What the judge's decision says is that negative qualities have been associated with an individual with the intent to offend. The argument was not made for “reporting the truth” or valuing the freedom of the press to report on published facts, because for the judge the problem was not the links but rather the adjectives used to present them. Therefore, this ruling couldn't be used in another proceeding – not even as case law – to argue that one is responsible for the defamatory content that one links to on other websites.

Another law expert, Erick Iriarte, argues in his blog Lex Digitalis [es] that though he regrets this has happened to fellow blogger Godoy, it is necessary to recognize now what this will mean in determining if internet law will be treated like other communications mediums:

La sentencia es sobre la responsabilidad por los contenidos y publicados por Godoy … Podemos discrepar sobre la sancion y sus implicancias para las libertades de Godoy, sin embargo las mismas estan enfocadas en el tema del delito de difamacion, asi sea por internet o no …. Internet no es un mundo sin ley ni jurisdiccion. ¿Responsabilidad?, ese es la palabra a tomar en consideracion en toda la sentencia.

The sentencing is about responsibility for the contents and publications made by Godoy … We can disagree about the punishment and its implications for Godoy's freedom. However these penalties are the punishment for the crime of defamation, whether it be through the internet or something else …. The internet is not a lawless world without jurisdictions. Responsibility. That is the word that should be considered through all of this.

For Eduardo Gonzales from the blog La Torre de Marfil the ruling is unfair, and he gives some of the reasons for his opinion [es]:

… el Sr. Mufarech es una persona pública y en -la época de los hechos examinados por Godoy- era un funcionario cuyo ejercicio es de interés público, y que debía ser fiscalizado en forma libre y efectiva por la prensa. Godoy no había publicado en el artículo en cuestión nada sobre al conducta privada de Mufarech, sino sobre hechos que podrían indicar un mal uso del poder político. Considerar que Godoy difama a Mufarech por considerarlo un mal funcionario que tiene la extraña distinción de tropezarse con la ley y la controversia en varias ocasiones es un absurdo, y abre la puerta a que cualquier ciudadano sea reprimido por opinar negativamente sobre la conducta de los miembros del gobierno.

… Mr. Mufarech is a public person and, in the timeline of facts reviewed by Godoy, Mufarech was a functionary whose actions are of public interest, and that should be prosecuted in a free and effective manner by the press. Godoy did not publish anything about the private conduct of Mufarech in the blog post in question, yet the facts could indicate a misuse of political power. Considering that Godoy defamed Mufarech by calling him a bad government employee, and that has strangely caused him, on several points, to trip up with the law and controvery is absurd. It opens the door to any citizen being sued for a negative opinion on a government members’ public conduct.

Another reason against the sentencing in blogger Gonzales's opinion:

la jueza ha aplicado mal la ley y ha mostrado una ignorancia incompatible con la importancia de este caso. En efecto, la Dra. Flor de María La Rosa no ha motivado su sentencia compulsando pruebas, examinando la defensa del querellado, analizando la doctrina, ni evaluando las posibles circunstancias eximentes de responsabilidad. … Sin duda, el derecho a la buena reputación es fundamental, pero pecan de ingenuidad quienes piensen que ese derecho debe, en toda circunstancia y de manera absoluta, imponerse sobre la libertad de expresión.

The judge misapplied the law and showed an ignorance unfathomable with a case as important as this one. In effect, Judge Flor de María La Rosa hasn't made her sentencing following libel tests, examining the defense of accused, analyzing case law, or even evaluating the possible extenuating circumstances of responsibility. … Without a doubt, the right to one's good reputation is fundamental but it would be too naive to think that this right should, in all circumstances, absolutely override the freedom of expression.

However Francisco Canaza from the blog Apuntes Peruanos, among several legal points he makes, argues against one of the assertions made by the previous blogger [es]:

8 – Otra argumentación se basa en la calidad de “funcionario público” del agraviado, lo que convertiría al agraviado en sujeto especial de fiscalización pública. Como ya se dijo, el agraviado a la fecha de sucedidos los hechos no era funcionario público.
10 – El procesado, según los actuados resumidos en la sentencia, no ejerció su derecho a aplicar la “exceptio veritatis”, mecanismo que permite al denunciado demostrar la verdad de las afirmaciones tachadas de difamatorias, para así evitar la pena.

8 – Another argument based on the outraged party's position as a “public functionary”, well, what would translate to outraged party in the special subject of public prosecution. As has already been said, the outraged party on the date of the blog postings wasn't a public functionary
10 – The guilty party, according to the current sentence summary, didn't exercise his right to call for “exceptio veritatis”, a legal mechanism that allows the accused to show the truth of their allegedly libelousor defamatory statements, and in that way avoid his current sentencing.

For his part, Silvio Rendón from the blog Gran Combo Club in an extensive post that discusses many details of the blogger, perhaps not details directly related to the case but necessary to understanding his background, and he also gives his opinion on the “defamation” topic [es]:

Es evidente que Godoy está presentando a su aludido como una persona de mala reputación. El texto que Godoy escribe no es la cita del título de la noticia que uno ve cuando va al enlace. Es un texto de plena autoría de Godoy. Es más, si uno hace click, por ejemplo, en el enlace “evasión tributaria por la compra de un Jaguar” no es este el texto que aparece, sino una noticia con otro título redactada en forma mucho más cuidadosa, … Si el texto de un bloguero es “fulano es corrupto” y está sombreado por un enlace que lleva a una noticia titulada “fulano está siendo investigado por corrupción”, la frase “fulano es corrupto” es del bloguero, no del autor de la página enlazada. El bloguero asume la responsabilidad de su frase.

It is evident that Godoy is presenting his subject as a person of ill repute. The text that Godoy writes doesn't cite the title of the news articles that one sees after going to the link. It is a text written under Godoy's full authority. What is more, if one clicked, for example, on the link “tax evasion on a Jaguar car purchase” it isn't Godoy's phrase that appears but rather a different title, much more cautiously written … If the words of a blogger are “so-and-so is corrupt” and it is supported by a link to a news article titled “so-and-so is being investigated for corruption”, the phrase “so-and-so is corrupt” is the blogger's, not the author of the linked article. The blogger assumes responsibility for his words.

Godoy will appeal the ruling as far as he can as the sentencing is clearly excessive to the crime committed. On Twitter the hashtag #fuerzagodoy is being used by those sympathetic to the recently sentenced blogger. As the story develops, we will keep you informed of changes and conclusion to this case.

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