A Colombian Official Takes Short-Lived Legal Action Against a Journalist Over His Tweets

Ministerio TIC Colombia

Every citizen has a right to question their civil servants, but some are asking whether there is a limit to this that does not constitute repression of freedom of expression. Image taken from the Flickr account of Ministerio TIC Colombia under a Creative Commons license.

A government official filed a writ for the protection of constitutional rights, or “tutela” in Spanish, against a journalist who criticized her job performance on Twitter, which reopened a debate about freedom of expression on the Internet in Colombia.

Cristina Plazas, director of the Colombian Family Welfare Institute (ICBF for its initials in Spanish), began legal proceedings in January in which she seeks to protect her reputation, obtain a correction from journalist Gonzalo Guillén and have his Twitter account shut down.

Guillén had published criticism of Plazas’ management of the institute and denounced alleged irregularities such as in La Guajira, where he says children of the Wayúu people, who suffer from a lack of water in the areas where they live, are not being cared for.

Guillén has called Plaza “corrupt” and says that she uses the institute as a “political fortress” while the Wayúu children are dying from undernourishment and lack of response from the ICBF.

Plazas had this response to the allegations:

Video: Every citizen has the right to question and criticize the decisions and actions of all public officials, but no one can abuse this right to systematically bully, harass or defame another person, as Mr. Gonzalo Guillén has been doing to me using his Twitter account. I filed this writ of protection to ask the Colombian justice system to protect my rights in the face of this harassment by this man.

Tweet: Every citizen has the right to question the decisions of public officials, but…

However, the official withdrew the writ of protection following reactions throughout the country, as well as condemnation from the Foundation for Freedom of the Press (FLIP for its initials in Spanish), which was emphatic on the matter:

“(l) La libertad de expresión se aplica a Internet del mismo modo que a todos los medios de comunicación. Las restricciones a la libertad de expresión en Internet solo resultan aceptables cuando cumplen con los estándares internacionales…”. Al respecto la Relatoría para la Libertad de Expresión de la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos ha dicho: “(…) todas las medidas que puedan de una u otra forma afectar el acceso y uso de Internet deben interpretarse a la luz de la primacía de la libertad de expresión”.

“(I) Freedom of expression applies to the Internet the same way it applies to all media. Restrictions on freedom of expression on the Internet are only acceptable when they meet international standards…”. On this matter the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression has said “(…) all measures that may in one way or another affect the access to and use of the Internet must be interpreted in light of the primacy of freedom of expression.”

In its message, FLIP also addressed the country's judiciary:

Se deben aplicar los mismos parámetros de tiempo, modo y requisitos. De esta forma se debe tener en cuenta que la rectificación mediante tutela exige, como requisito de procedibilidad, que haya existido una solicitud previa. También hay que tener en cuenta que sobre las expresiones de opinión no procede una rectificación, por lo que en este caso se debe hacer una distinción muy precisa de cuáles declaraciones corresponden a opiniones y cuáles son información susceptible de rectificarse.

Por otra parte, preocupa que se solicite la eliminación de la cuenta de Twitter de Gonzalo Guillén. Esto porque pide que se le ordene a la red social el bloqueo más allá de lo que pueda suceder con la rectificación, pues aún si el periodista rectifica podría ver limitada su expresión con el cierre de su cuenta. Se encuentra entonces que el bloqueo y la eliminación terminarían siendo una actuación desmedida contra la libertad de expresión. Hay que recordar que la Corte Interamericana ha señalado que toda limitación a la libertad de expresión debe ser necesaria y proporcional, es decir que debe ser la única y más efectiva, algo que en este caso no se cumple.

The same criteria of time, manner and requirements must be applied. Thus one must keep in mind that correction through a writ of protection requires, as a prerequisite for admissibility, the existence of a prior request. It is also important to note that corrections do not proceed on expressions of opinion, and thus in this case a very clear distinction must be made as to which declarations correspond to opinions and which are information subject to correction.

Meanwhile, the request to eliminate Gonzalo Guillén's Twitter account is concerning. This is because the complainant asks that the social network be ordered to block the account, beyond what may occur with the correction, so that even if the journalist issues a correction he could see his freedom of expression limited through the closure of his account. Thus, it is found that the blocking and elimination of his account would be a disproportionate action against freedom of expression. It must be recalled that the Inter-American Court has indicated that any limitation of freedom of expression must be necessary and proportionate, that is, it must be the only and most effective means, something which is not true in this case.

Likewise, the foundation made mention of the responsibility of the Internet intermediary:

Esta es una acción indebida de acuerdo a los estándares nacionales e internacionales. En su sentencia 277 de 2015, la Corte Constitucional señaló: “imponer responsabilidades a los intermediarios de Internet por los contenidos transmitidos limitaría de forma importante la difusión de ideas por este medio de comunicación, pues les daría el poder para regular el flujo de información en la red. En cuanto a quienes generan la información, la Relatoría para la Libertad de Prensa ha indicado que las responsabilidades ulteriores solamente pueden ser impuestas a los autores de lo expresado en internet, es decir, a quienes son directamente responsables de la expresión ofensiva”.

This is a wrongful action according to national and international standards. In ruling number 277 of 2015, the Constitutional Court indicated that: “imposing responsibility on Internet intermediaries for content transmitted would significantly limit the spread of ideas via this medium, as it would give them the power to regulate the flow of information online. With respect to those who generate the information, the Rapporteur for Freedom of the Press has indicated that ultimate responsibility can only be accorded to the authors of what is expressed on the Internet, that is, those who are directly responsible for the offensive expression.”

Upon hearing of the withdrawal of the writ of protection, Guillén celebrated on Twitter, making reference to the Mexican television show “El Chavo del 8″:

Image: What an idiot!!! Give him zero!!!

Tweet: Prestigious jurist @cristinaplazasm has just withdrawn the writ of protection against me recognizing that she did it terribly pic.twitter.com/PbXmG20S9z

People on both sides of the issue have also spoken out on Twitter. Journalist Rafael Chica Guzmán supported Plazas’ position:

I am a Journalist, I love freedom of the Press, but I express my admiration for @cristinaplazasm who dared to seek Limits to insults on Twitter

Journalist Jineth Bedoya Lima was in favor of freedom of expression with limitations:

Freedom of expression is one of the fundamental rights of every person, but it also has its limits! @FLIP_org @cristinaplazasm

Estebán Giraldo expressed his support for the director for daring to denounce what he considers harassment:

@cristinaplazasm There are people who make bullying a way of life. In schools, places of work, families. We must not be silent.

Journalist Lucía Esparza Baena defended the need to use social media with respect:

I agree. Social media is not made for bullying but rather for respectful expression. I support @cristinaplazasm https://t.co/VVM48h37kU

Juan Carlos Pastrana clarified the scope of the complaint given that it relates to a journalist:

Image: Plazas’ big 180-degree turn became known after Guillén published a copy of the filing presented before municipal criminal court no. 5 which supervises Bogotá. In that filing, Plazas Michelsen requests that the judicial complaint filed last Tuesday, which sparked a big controversy, be withdrawn.

Tweet: Writs of protection against journalists must be made before a circuit judge. Municipal judges do not have jurisdiction

Jairo Andrés Rivera wrote in favor of freedom of expression, and also reminded readers of the reason behind Guillén's original criticism: the children who have died in La Guajira:

My solidarity with @HELIODOPTERO (Gonzalo Guillén). May the country understand and feel the tragedy in La Guajira. Freedom to speak and the duty to insist.

On this matter, Guillén continues to condemn the actions of the ICBF:

A child dies of hunger in a tub in La Guajira in the face of inhumane indifference from @ICBFColombia and @cristinaplazasm

@AbogadosFenix: Mrs @cristinaplazasm has a juridical mess in her head. Could the university that made her a lawyer be prosecuted?

Despite having withdrawn the writ of protection, the director has vowed to keep pursuing the matter:

Legal action against Gonzalo Guillén will continue.

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