Several Peruvian news outlets are facing a slew of lawsuits that highlight how Peru's harsh penalties against defamation are creating a chilling effect on media coverage of organized crime and corruption.
Miguel Arévalo Ramírez, known by the alias "Eteco," recently filed criminal defamation lawsuits against half a dozen news outlets, four journalists and a counternarcotic official who reported over the course of the last year on his alleged ties to drug trafficking, Ojo-Publico.com reported.
The news reports published by Ojo-Publico.com, La República, El Comercio, América Televisión and Agencia Perú Producciones were based on official documents detailing an investigation by Peru's counternarcotic police and the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). InSight Crime cited and republished some of this reporting.
According to the official investigation, Arévalo is suspected of trafficking cocaine beginning in the 1980s. His cousin, David Bazán Arévalo, was also a subject of the investigation, and was arrested in July on charges of financing and supplying weapons to the Shining Path terrorist group during his tenure as mayor of the northern town of Tocache.
The series of lawsuits against the media companies is one of the biggest of its kind in Peru's history. Arévalo is demanding $210 million in fines and several years of jail time for the journalists involved. However, these lawsuits are not the first launched by the suspected drug trafficker.
Earlier this year, a judge ruled in favor of Arévalo in a separate lawsuit against Google and many of the same news outlets. The judge in that case ordered the outlets to "remove, eliminate and delete" and "abstain from future publication" of Arévalo's personal information and images.
Two years ago, Arévalo also sued Corina de la Cruz, a local radio journalist and former mayor of Tocache, for airing an interview about him. De la Cruz was sentenced to two years in prison and a fine of 10 million soles (more than $3 million).
Arévalo's lawsuits also follow on the heels of several similar cases in recent years.
In 2004, Fernando Zevallos, alias "Lunarejo," who is now serving 25 years in prison for his role as a drug kingpin, sued El Comercio for $200 million for their coverage of his ties to drug trafficking. Rodolfo Orellana Rengifo, who is currently on trial for his alleged role as the leader of a massive corruption network, also launched more than a dozen failed lawsuits in recent years against news outlets and journalists for their coverage of his presumed involvement in organized crime.
InSight Crime Analysis
Lawsuits against news outlets and journalists covering corruption and organized crime, like those recently sweeping through Peru, have a concerning chilling effect and could limit access to accurate information about some of the most significant security threats in Latin America.
Every country in Latin America and the Caribbean, except for Jamaica, uses criminal laws to punish defamation, which the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says creates a chilling effect on the press.
In Peru, the CPJ has documented an "alarming use of outdated criminal defamation provisions to target critical journalists." Such lawsuits have been used successfully several times in recent years to silence reporting on government corruption and links to organized crime.
SEE ALSO: Peru News and Profiles
Zuliana Lainez, the Secretary General of the National Association of Peruvian Journalists (Asociación Nacional de Periodistas del Perú - ANP), told InSight Crime that these lawsuits have become a tool in recent years for powerful elites to "block" critical reporting by throwing journalists in jail or demanding exorbitant fines, which have at times shut down small, local news outlets.
"Without a doubt, in Peru we have tremendous concern, not just right now but for many years, that defamation lawsuits are being used in reality as instruments to generate fear and silence investigations and critical voices," Lainez said.
Lainez added that while Arévalo's lawsuits have drawn a great deal of attention because of the massive fines he is seeking and the wide range of news outlets and journalists involved, there are many other similar defamation cases currently working their way through local courts in Peru.
According to Lainez, defamation lawsuits have been "misused" for the "judicial persecution" of journalists, but there is no political will in congress to change the law.