Colombia’s supreme court threatens free speech

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Colombians worry their free speech is under threat following the move by the Supreme Court to charge journalist Cecilia Orozco Tascón with slander.

Two articles highly critical of the court, written by Orozco, the director of a news television channel Noticias Uno, and Semana columnist María Jimena Duzán, were adjudged by the court to have crossed the boundaries of press freedom. Through a communique issued by the penal committee on Thursday, the country learnt that court will not allow ‘injurious’ and ‘slanderous’ comment against the institution.

Although no charges have been raised against Duzán, Orozco appears likely to face trial as Chief Prosecutor, Alejandro Odoñez confirmed she has a case to answer.

For years politicians have tried unsuccessfully to quiet the journalist’s voice in Colombia. Is the Supreme Court now succeeding where they failed? Is this the beginning of the end for press liberty in Colombia?

A threat to freedom of speech?

Colombia is considered perhaps the most stable democracy in Central or South America. It might be victim to the jealous gaze of narco-terrorists (from the right and the left), but Colombia’s constitution offers a system of checks and balances that has maintained a relatively secure, if not entirely participative, democracy.

Military coups might be a signature of Latin America’s recent history, but in Colombia dictatorial leaders have little currency. Votes are cast and results are respected.

Colombians view with pity their Ecuadorean and Venezuelan neighbours who live with the rampant despotism of Rafael Correa and Hugo Chávez. Citadels to 21st Century socialism loom threateningly over Colombia’s borders, seeking influence through their ideological and financial support of guerrilla groups, the FARC and ELN.

Hugo’s ‘Bolivarian revolution’ (in supposed honour of the great South American liberator, Simón Bolívar), copied by Correa, has crushed free-speech, forcing privately-run opposition media to close or reduce output, and in their place has installed monolithic state-controlled propaganda machines. So absurdly obsequious is Venezuela to her ‘Commandante’, that Chávez’ Tweets are now sent as text messages to the phones of millions of voters.

Until this week a cozy consensus has existed that Colombia represents a regional counter-balance to this orgy of left-wing loony-ism, a country where liberalism and freedom is respected. The Supreme Court’s communique has seriously challenged this view.

By charging Orozco and by giving Duzán the severe ticking-off that it has, the court is effectively sanctioning the criminalisation of opinion in Colombia.

So what does the court take issue with? It argues that the journalists’ opinions ‘call into question the honesty and the transparency of the court and its members’. The good name of the institution must be defended, they assert.

But reading these articles it is impossible to see where the court hopes to prove slander and injury. The accusations the journalists put are that the court has become more subject to ‘clientalism’ and ‘bureaucracy’ that it is ‘subordinated’ it to the ‘parliament and the attorney general’. Essentially, Orozco and Duzán imply the interests of the court lie more in self-preservation, than in safeguarding the constitution.

The truth is that whether or not the court works hand in glove with those it judges, or whether it has become clientalised are assertions that should be challenged in public, proven wrong through debate, not through legal process.

The supreme court could have taken to the airwaves to try to prove Orozco and Duzán wrong, by hiding behind criminal charges it is displaying what guests on the leading radio programme, Hora 20, have called an unforgivable ‘arrogance’.

During the Uribe years, the Supreme Court played a crucial role in the preservation of the branches of power, eventually overturning the ex-president’s efforts to amend the constitution a second time to permit his third mandate. It won enemies within Uribism, but friends among those who feared the accumulation and over-centralisation of power in the president’s office.

For the country’s columnists the court has since failed to live up to its obligation to the Colombian state.

Ultimately, the legitimacy of the court is derived from its role in preserving democracy.

By sacrificing the nation’s freedom-of-speech, and by hiding behind legal constructs instead of facing the public, the court is appears at once to be creating, undermining and acting above, the law.

If the court is wrong to press these charges, is it still an exaggeration to see them as a threat to free speech? Colombia’s commentariat doesn’t think so. Respected journalists and opinion writers have virtually unanimously attacked the court – Daniel Samper Ospina, director of SOHO suggested the court had ‘put us at the level of Venezuela and Ecuador’ while the political analyst Claudia López called it a ‘shameful’ decision, that threatens the ability of opinion writers to do their job.

So who will win, the courts or public opinion and freedom?

The magistrates on Colombia’s highest legal body have recently endured a torrid time in the court of public opinion. The body has been accused of lobbying for those clauses within the ill-fated Justice Reform bill that were designed to deliver significant benefits both for the institution and its members. This bill caused outrage with the public who forced the president to ditch it what they saw as entirely self-serving law for the governing class. As the court further isolates itself from the public it jeopardises the legitimacy that popular consent provides.

Whilst it is true that the Supreme Court in Colombia fought heroically against the ‘parapoliticos’ during the last government, an attack on freedom of speech cannot be tolerated. The abuses of power by Colombia’s neighbours must not begin to find a home here. The role of the Supreme Court as a body that preserves the constitution must be supported. We must talk it down from the ledge from which it appears desperate to plunge.

Posted by Kevin Howlett at Colombia-Politics
Facebook: Colombia-Politics
Twitter:@ColPolitics

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