The police raided the reporter’s home after he conducted an investigation into the elite Catholic society. The court ordered an asset freeze for journalists following a libel complaint from a powerful figure. The sports journalist called the head of the football club incompetent and was sentenced to a year in prison.
And then, last week, a judge sentenced a Peruvian journalist to two years in prison and fined $100,000 after a defamation suit filed by a powerful and wealthy politician.
Media experts called the decision the most direct threat to freedom of speech in Peru in recent years. And, they said, it was part of a worrying trend across the region — but particularly strong in Peru — of powerful individuals using the courts to intimidate and punish journalists who investigate their cases.
“This is absolutely contrary to the fundamental principles of freedom of expression,” Ricardo Useda, head of the Institute of Press and Society of Peru, said of the decision.
The politician in this case, Cesar Acuña, is the subject of a book by journalist Christopher Acosta called Como Cancha Pay, which roughly means Cash in a Bucket.
In the book, Mr. Acosta cites several sources who accuse Mr. Acuña, a multimillionaire presidential candidate who now heads a political party, of vote buying, misuse of public funds and plagiarism. In his decision, the judge in the case, Raul Jesus Vega, said that almost three dozen phrases in the book are defamatory.
Instead of considering the veracity of the allegations, Judge Jesús Vega criticized the journalist for not being able to sufficiently substantiate them in his assessment.
The judge also convicted Jeronimo Pimentel, director of a book publishing house. And he made Mr. Pimentel and Penguin Random House in Peru liable for the $100,000 fine that would go to Mr. Acuña.
Mr. Acosta will not go to jail – many shorter sentences in Peru are suspended – and the parties are appealing the decision.
But the lawsuit has hit the media in Peru like an anvil, with many saying it is sure to have a chilling effect on future reporting.
Mr. Acosta, who is likely to face a lengthy appeal process, said he sees the lawsuit “not just out of a desire to go after a particular journalist, but to send a message to journalists across the country.”
This message was clear, he said, “Look what can happen to you if you mess with me.”
The Cash by the Bucket case is particularly troubling, according to media experts, because Judge Jesús Vega raised the bar for reporting significantly in his analysis, suggesting it wasn’t enough to interview and quote a few people with knowledge of the matter. issue when bringing charges.
Rather, defenders say, the judge’s language in the verdict suggests that for information to be released, it must be verified by an authority such as a congressional investigation.
But a journalist should not be convicted of defamation if the evidence shows that he or she made every effort to verify the published allegations, said Miguel Jugo, a lawyer for Peru’s national association of journalists.
Unlike the United States and Mexico, where defamation is usually a civil matter, in Peru, it is a criminal offense defined as the act of publicly attributing to another person “a fact, quality, or conduct which is likely to damage his honor or reputation.”
According to Mr. Yugo, in Cash by the Bucket, the judge argues that Mr. Acosta did not exercise due diligence, a claim disputed by Mr. Acosta and many of his allies.
Mr. Acosta heads the investigative department at Latina Noticias, an important TV station in Lima. All of the allegations in his book, he told the Committee to Protect Journalists, are direct quotations from interviews or news articles, attorney general investigations, or testimony from lawyers and congressmen.
According to Natalie Southwick of the Committee to Protect Journalists, other countries in the region have similar laws. But, she says, Peru has “the most consistent convictions in criminal defamation cases.”
According to the National Association of Journalists of Peru, the number of cases of the judicial system against journalists increased from 18 to 29 per year between 2020 and 2018.
These defamation suits come after years of economic growth in Peru that has expanded the public treasury and created new opportunities for self-employment among the ruling class.
In recent years, corruption scandals involving former presidents, judges and lawmakers have fueled political freedom for all, while clashes between Congress and the executive branch and massive protests have seen the country change four presidents in the past year.
Journalists uncovered most of the offenses.
But powerful figures fought back, often using the judicial system, and in many cases succeeding.
“Courts and prosecutors are being used like whips to silence journalists,” said Paola Ugas, an investigative journalist who has faced multiple lawsuits and criminal investigations after uncovering allegations of sexual and physical abuse in an elite Catholic society in Peru.
“Tell me, what publisher would want to publish a book now, knowing that they could suddenly be forced to pay 400,000 soles, condemning the editor?” she said.
The book Ms. Ugaz is working on, about the group’s finances, was shelved for two years because she had to focus on her legal defense, she said.
Her partner Pedro Salinas was given a one-year suspended sentence in 2019 in a lawsuit filed by the archbishop. In the end, the archbishop withdrew the suit and a similar suit against Mrs. Ugaz.
But earlier this month, authorities raided Mr. Salinas’ home, saying they suspected him of corruption in connection with work his public relations company did years ago.
“The emotional, family and psychological damage is enormous,” Ms Ugaz said of the court cases.
Mr. Acuña, 69, the tycoon who sued Mr. Acosta, became mayor of the city of Trujillo just as Mr. Acosta, now 38, was beginning his career as an investigative reporter in the same city.
Over the years, Mr. Acuña has grown rich by owning commercial universities and was a congressman and governor.
Mr. Acuña ran for president in 2016 and 2021. He was banned from running in the first round after he was caught on camera promising to distribute money in a poor area.
By then, he had already fallen in the polls after local media reported that he was suspected of plagiarizing parts of his doctoral dissertation and a book written by a former professor.
The country’s intellectual property department eventually found that Mr. Acuña had violated copyright rules in both cases and ordered him to pay a fine. But the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, which published the dissertation, decided after investigation that it did not find sufficient grounds to withdraw it.
Despite his decline in popularity, Mr. Acuña’s party has increased its presence in Congress. This helped the impeachment of former President Martin Vizcarra last year and is believed to be critical to current President Pedro Castillo’s political survival.
Mr. Acuña denied the book’s allegations and said media advocates were “exaggerating” the possible impact of his lawsuit.
“I tell my journalist friends: don’t be afraid,” he said, “as long as you stick to your code, your journalistic code.”
This journalistic code, in his opinion, includes the obligation “to unite the Peruvians, and not to divide them, as is the case now.”
Ms. Southwick, a media advocate, pointed to cases in Guatemala and Brazil where powerful people used the courts to bring lawsuits against journalists and said that the case “reflects a long-standing view of powerful people across the region that they out of check. ”
But, according to her, “to be a government official is to be ready to bear responsibility.”