by Freddy Cuevas & Christopher Sherman, for Associated Press
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — Days before Honduras’ elections in 2017, a former high-ranking official in the national police, Maria Luisa Borjas, held a news conference at which she read from government investigative reports about three high-profile killings.
Now, as an opposition lawmaker, she faces the possibility of a fine and, more significantly, the loss of her seat in Congress when she goes on trial Monday charged with defamation. Her alleged crime was essentially naming names — the suspected “intellectual authors” of a slaying contained in one of those reports — in a country where the powerful have long enjoyed impunity.
Honduras and other Latin American nations have been criticized by international organizations for years for their criminal defamation statutes, which are seen as powerful tools allowing elites — often lawmakers themselves — to silence critics.
Borjas has a long track record of calling out corruption, starting with the police force’s own ranks when she ran its internal affairs unit.
“It’s a political persecution and they want to set a precedent so that nobody dares to denounce absolutely anything here,” Borjas said. “People say, ‘Well, if they do this to a deputy, what could they do to me?’”
In another case earlier this month, the country’s Supreme Court rejected a bid for a new trial by journalist David Romero, who has been an outspoken critic of President Juan Orlando Hernandez. The justices upheld a 10-year prison sentence given Romero in 2016 after he was convicted on several counts of defamation for his reporting on the wife of a former attorney general.
Honduras’ constitution guarantees its citizens the right to honor, and defamation is considered a crime against a person’s honor.
The Honduras-based Committee for Freedom of Expression has counted 41 criminal cases related to crimes against honor since 2003, including 13 targeting journalists. This month, the committee said that “the mere existence of these crimes, and the handing down of sentences with disproportionate penalties, have the effect of intimidation and self-censorship.” It called for decriminalizing such acts, especially when a purportedly defamatory comment or report is in the public interest.
In Borjas’ case, it was Camilo Atala, president of Ficohsa bank, who cried foul.
He was one of the 16 people whose names Borjas read from the security ministry’s inspector general report as a suspected plotter of the killing of environmental activist Berta Cáceres in 2016. The report said the suspects were identified based on collected evidence, including phone taps and recovered emails, but did not go into any detail about Atala’s alleged role.
In November, a court found seven people guilty of participating in Caceres’ murder, but her family continues to demand justice be brought against those behind the killing.
Borjas said she read the reports for journalists that day because she knew they had been in prosecutors’ possession, but had not been acted on. She filed a complaint with the national human rights commission that same day.
Atala’s lawsuit contends Borjas’ comments “directly affect his commercial relationships with national and foreign partners, as well as with the bank’s clients.” The lawsuit says the comments “caused irreparable damage to the honor, prestige and dignity” of Atala.
Luis Padilla, a lawyer who filed the lawsuit, initially said he would speak to a reporter about the case. But when called at the agreed time, Padilla said he could not talk about the case. He then played a recording of that same statement repeatedly on a loop as the reporter asked different questions.
Padilla later agreed to convey a message to Atala asking for him to comment, but there was no response.
Last January, Atala’s representatives reportedly offered to drop the lawsuit if Borjas publicly retracted her statement. She refused. Her lawyer, Kenia Oliva, said there was still a possibility of a settlement, but Atala’s demand for a public retraction remained.
Facing just a single count of defamation, Borjas said she does not expect jail time if convicted, but rather a fine. But she also anticipates there will be an attempt to oust her from Congress following a conviction.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has criticized the use of such cases by the powerful. “Considering the consequences of criminal sanctions and the inevitable chilling effect they have on freedom of expression, criminalization of speech can only apply in those exceptional circumstances when there is an obvious and direct threat of lawless violence,” it says.
At the news conference on Nov. 22, 2017, Borjas told reporters that in Honduras the biggest crime is reporting that a crime has been committed. “Not murdering someone, not trafficking drugs, weapons, not assault,” she said.
Associated Press writer Freddy Cuevas reported this story in Tegucigalpa and AP writer Christopher Sherman reported from Mexico City.