Press freedom group in Colombia releases guide for reporters facing libel, slander charges

Concerned about the growing threat of slander and libel lawsuits as tool to censor the press, the Free Press Foundation (FLIP in Spanish) released “Outside Justice: a manual for journalists facing slander and libel charges,” the group published on its website.

According to statistics from FLIP, there have been 48 criminal charges filed against journalists during the last seven years and 25 lawsuits for crimes like slander or libel.

One of the best-known cases took place in August 2012, when Colombia’s Supreme Court announced it would sue a journalist for slander and libel and reprimanded another journalist’s column was “biased.” Days after the announcement, the country’s highest court backed down and said it would not take legal action. 2012 also saw the first Colombian journalist sentenced for libel, drawing criticism from journalist organizations and even the government.

“What we hope to do is provide the tools for people to understand what they should do when they’re accused of libel and slander, which are becoming more common in Colombia,” said Andrés Morales, executive director of FLIP, in an interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. “We explain the crimes and what a journalist would have to do to be charged with them, recognizing that many times a journalist could be charged for not knowing [the law] or for poor journalistic practices.”

Using illustrations to facilitate understanding, the 52-page manual presents advice from journalists, lawyers and legal experts, who worked on the manual for four months.

“The manual first came out in print in September 2012. Copies were distributed to hundreds of journalists across the country but we decided to upload an online version so any journalist could access it,” Morales said.

Beyond legal explanations, FLIP also offered recommendations to avoid reporting errors and questions reporters should ask before they publish information. Click here to read the full manual (in Spanish).

10 recommendations from FLIP:

1. If you have information in the public interest, publish it.

2. When possible, be clear about when you present an opinion (especially on the radio).

3. Keep copies of the evidence cited in your report.

4. When you interview a controversial figure, record the conversation and be sure the subject understands the purpose of the conversation and the questioned asked.

5. If your interview or documents cited mention others, be sure to get their side of the story. If this isn’t possible, tell your audience you were unable to located them.

6. What is your sources source? If three people said the same thing, be sure it doesn’t all come from the same person.

7. After publishing, follow up on the topic and keep an eye on reactions. More evidence or versions of the story could appear, or something else could come up that demands correction or clarification.

8. Freedom of expression protects the public interest of what you say. However, this is not a shield to defame someone without any public benefit.

9. Rumors are not sources.

10. If you make a mistake, correct it. To err is human.



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