Content Regulation / Censorship, Violence Against Speakers / Impunity
Perozo and others v. Venezuela
Venezuela, Bolivarian Republic of
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A Paraguayan Collegiate Court of Judgment found Vilmar “Neneco” Acosta, the former mayor of the district of Ypejhú in the Department of Canindeyú, guilty of ordering the assassination of journalist Pablo Medina. On December 19, 2017, Acosta was sentenced to 29 years in prison and 10 years of security measures. Before his death, Medina published articles on the alleged participation of the Acosta Clan in homicides and drug trafficking in the area. These allegations have also been investigated by the Office of the Public Prosecutor. Leveraging international standards, specifically the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, and the rights enshrined in the Paraguayan National Constitution, the Court reasoned that it was not only a crime against a journalist’s right to life, but also a violation of freedom of expression and the right of all citizens to access information. Moreover, States have a fundamental and primary obligation to investigate and punish those responsible for the killing of journalists, including those who instigated it.
The unprecedented ruling marked a milestone in Paraguayan jurisprudence on the protection of the right to freedom of expression and the free exercise of journalism. It is the first judgment in Paraguay that sought criminal punishment for the mastermind of a murder against a journalist.
Journalist Pablo Medina Velázquez was a news correspondent for the local newspaper ABC Color Paraguay. Medina was working on a story about an insect plague that threatened harvest on several farms in Colonia Crescencio.
On October 16, 2014, he traveled in a van to the Ko’ê Porã indigenous community with his assistant Antonia Maribel Almada Chamorro and her sister Juana Ruth Almada Chamorro to tour a plantation. On their drive home, two individuals identified Medina and killed Medina and Antonia Maribel with firearms. Juana Ruth hid in the backseat and survived. The two men were identified as Wilson Acosta Marques and Flavio Acosta Riveros, the brother and nephew of Vilmar Acosta Marcques.
Medina focused much of his work on the intersection between drug trafficking, deforestation and corruption in Ypejhú and nearby towns. He began investigating and publishing various journalistic pieces on the Acosta Clan and their connection to drug trafficking and assassinations in 2010. Medina had received multiple death threats from Vilmar Acosta and as a result he had been granted a police guard for a specific period of time.
Judge Ramón T. Zelaya delivered the opinion of the Court.
The Court analyzed in detail the motive for the crime and its connection to Medina’s journalistic activities by referring to his articles that had been published in the years prior to his murder. It established from witness testimony that it was public knowledge that Vilmar Acosta was upset by the publications made by the journalist. The Court also found that Vilmar Acosta had expressed his desire to silence Medina long before the crime took place, specifically when Medina wrote about the murder of Vilmar Acosta’s political adversary and when he failed to win a defamation lawsuit against Medina. The Court also stated that Medina had received constant death threats directly related to the publication of articles about “Clan Acosta” and had been assigned a police officer for his protection.
Judge Janine Ríos González submitted an extended opinion, which is considered part of the Court’s decision, highlighting the importance of protecting the exercise of the right to freedom of expression. It stated that the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACmHR) had emphasized that the killing of journalists constitutes the gravest violation of the right to freedom of expression. It inhibits their right to life, suppresses their right to freely express ideas, and limits the right of society to participate in the free flow of information [pg. 324].
The Court stated that, according to Inter-American standards, the obligation to investigate and prevent impunity for the killing of journalists is a fundamental and primary obligation of States. Judge Ríos noted that, according to the IACmHR, the lack of a thorough investigation to hold those responsible accountable, constituted a violation of the right to freedom of expression. She said that this obligation was important to guarantee not only the right to life, but also the free and full exercise of the right to freedom of expression [pg. 325-326]. She added that compliance with the duty to investigate is one of the most crucial ways to prevent attacks against journalists.
Apart from the State’s responsibilities of prevention, protection, investigation and prosecution, Judge Rios referred to the overarching chilling effect of crimes against journalists on other media professionals and society. Indeed, the Judge recalled that the IACmHR acknowledges that violence against journalists, with the sole objective of silencing them, is a violation of society’s right to access information freely [pg. 327]. The Court also stressed that impunity negatively impacts the right to freedom of expression, which could lead to censorship.
According to the Court, the role of the Judicial Power with respect to violence committed against journalists and those who exercise the right to freedom of expression is, essentially, to apply the relevant international standards. That is, to investigate the crime, render a judgment in order to obtain justice and penalize or establish the appropriate sentence.
Finally, the judicial decision also recalls the importance of identifying those who participated in the murder and those who were the masterminds or instigators in order to hold them both accountable to their crimes. [pg. 327-328]. The individuals who murdered Medina are Wilson Acosta Marques, who remains a fugitive, and Flavio Acosta Riveros, who was arrested in Brazil and extradited to Paraguay.
However, despite the relevance of the ruling, for condemning a mastermind, and thereby administering justice for the families of the victims, and the express recognition that Acosta represents for independent journalism in Paraguay, the Court said nothing about the prosecutorial work to administer justice against the perpetrators, and even against other accomplices, who made possible the escape of Acosta to Brazil. Nor did the Court say anything about other types of responsibilities that could be triggered by the facts proven before its instance, which reveal the existence of a risk, complaints by the victim and the State’s inaction to protect him.
On December 19, 2017, the Court sentenced Vilmar Acosta to 29 years in prison and 10 years of security measures for ordering the assassination of journalist Pablo Medina.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The decision expands expression since it recognizes that intimidating acts, such as the murder of a journalist, serve as an extreme form of censorship to limit the freedom of expression of journalists and society at large by inducing a chilling effect on the exchange of information. The decision also cites Inter-American standards regarding the State’s duty to prevent, protect and fight against impunity in crimes against journalists. It highlights the specific role of the judiciary in investigating, prosecuting and punishing all those responsible.
This ruling is both historic and exceptional in protecting the right to freedom of expression and the free exercise of journalism. It is also the first case in which a maximum sentence has been imposed for the mastermind of a crime against a journalist.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
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