Colombia: End the Harassment of Journalist Juan Pablo Barrientos

By | November 26, 2019 at 11:03 am | No comments | News

London, November 19, 2019 – Attempts to censor the book Let the Little Children Come to Me (Dejad que los niños vengan a mí), as well as the legal harassment against Colombian journalist Juan Pablo Barrientos, demonstrate that the Colombian authorities are not acting in favour of free expression, said PEN International today. The organisation calls on the authorities to end the legal harassment of the journalist and to refrain from forcing him to reveal his sources of information, a right protected by the Colombian Constitution.

At the end of September 2019, journalist Juan Pablo Barriento’s book Let the Little Children Come to Me (Dejad que los niños vengan a mí) went on sale, published by Planeta. The book – the result of an investigation into reports of the sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church in Colombia – tells the story of 28 victims and 18 priests who are alleged to have carried out the abuse. The 2018 radio version of the story received the Simón Bolívar Award for best radio investigation.

According to reports, as soon as the book was distributed, three separate writ petitions (‘acción de tutela’) were filed on behalf of two priests and a former coordinator of altar boys implicated in the investigation of the alleged perpetrators. The filing of acciones de tutela is a common mechanism used in Colombia to protect individual’s rights when they have been violated by action or omission carried out by any public authority. The legal process in this case proceeded quickly resulting in a decision on October 25 made as “a provisional measure” while the case is investigated. Judge Rafael Vásquez Gómez, presiding over the Municipal court of San Rafael, Antioquia department, ordered the suspension of the “reproduction, commercialisation and sale of the book” until he had reviewed the text to analyse whether it damaged the reputation of one of the accused. According to Rolling Stone magazine, once he had read the text the judge determined that there was no evidence that the author intended to damage the reputation of the petitioner, determining instead that the author had carried out a serious investigation of “allegedly real and verifiable facts.” The judge therefore lifted the injunction on the sale and distribution of the book on November 5.

While PEN supports the ability of individuals to protect their rights through the filing of writ petitions, in this case, the judge’s order to suspend the publication of the book prior to having read it contradicts Article 20 of the Constitution, which guarantees every person the freedom to express and disseminate their thoughts and opinions, to inform and receive truthful and impartial information, as well as Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights, to which Colombia is a State Party, in which the right to freedom of thought and expression is enshrined. According to the Colombian NGO Foundation for Press Freedom (Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa FLIP), “The Constitutional Court has said that the authorities, including judges, cannot establish measures that submit the dissemination of information to its permission, authorisation, prior examination, or to editing, adaptation or modification.”

No Colombian writer or journalist should be prevented from doing their work, which is to investigate and inform readers about a matter of public importance. Journalists and writers are doing their duty and have the right to express themselves freely in accordance with the law. The authorities have the obligation to respect and protect those rights so that journalists and writers can carry out their important work, which only furthers democracy and justice,” said Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee.

According to information published by FLIP, Barrientos faced further harassment when another court, the Second Court of La Ceja, Antioquia department, decided on October 29 that Barrientos had four hours to hand over details of his sources, indicating that failure to do so would result in disciplinary and/or criminal sanctions. This decision violates the right of journalists to protect their sources, protected under Article 74 of the Constitution.

In the course of the investigation that led to him publishing his book, Juan Pablo Barrientos uncovered specific cases of pederasty perpetrated by Colombian priests in which the prelates only informed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in the Vatican, but not the Prosecutor’s Office. PEN Colombia questions the decisions of certain judges [the judges presiding over the writ petitions] and urges them to protect the right to inform and be informed, as is stipulated in the 1991 National Constitution,” said Carlos Vasquez-Zawadski, President of PEN Colombia.

On November 14, Barrientos confirmed that all three writ petitions have been resolved in his favour. PEN International welcomes these decisions in favour of Barrientos’ right to exercise his freedom of expression and calls on the Colombian authorities to refrain from subjecting Barrientos to further censorship or requiring him to reveal his sources.

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