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Lessons learned from Paraguay’s historic ruling to end impunity of crimes against journalists

Part of a series of interviews with judges, prosecutors and legal experts from around the world in order to showcase good practices to #EndImpunity for crimes against journalists and #ProtectJournalists

In October 2014, Paraguayan journalist Pablo Medina Velázquez and his assistant Antonia Almada were in a van on their way back from reporting on the border between Brazil and Paraguay when they were stopped by two armed individuals. For 16 years, Pablo had dedicated himself to denouncing the crimes of politicians and drug traffickers in the border area as a correspondent for Paraguay’s largest daily newspaper ABC Color, and had already received threats for his work. It was a Thursday afternoon when the individuals approached the door of his van and asked him if he worked for ABC Color, before firing several shots at him and Antonia. Pablo was shot four times in the head and chest. Almada was also killed in the attack.

ABC Color soon blamed drug trafficking networks for Pablo's killing. The crime was seen by Paraguayan journalists as another message from organized crime intended to silence them, and they called on authorities to investigate the crime and make sure that it did not go unpunished, as had happened close to 25 years before with the case of Santiago Leguizamón, a journalist who died at the hands of organized crime for his investigations on cross-border drug trafficking in 1991, and whose murder remains unresolved.

In Pablo Medina Velázquez's case, justice is advancing and the case is on course to obtain a legal resolution. Those responsible for Pablo’s murder were identified as the mayor of a district near the border, who was the mastermind of the crime, along with his brother and one of his cousins. The mayor was captured in 2015 in Brazil and sentenced to 39 years in prison in 2017 in Paraguay, the highest penalty applied for this type of crime. The two other perpetrators are in prison in Brazil awaiting sentencing.

For Judge Janine Rios, who participated in the trial of the mastermind, the sentence against the former mayor is a "clear message" from the Paraguayan state, through the judiciary and the Public Prosecutor's Office, that those who seek to silence journalists will not be tolerated.

Judge Janine Rios is currently Judge of First Instance in Criminal and Correctional Matters for Minors of Curuguaty, Judicial District of Canindeyú, Paraguay.

The conviction of a former district mayor made this case the first sentence in Paraguay that sought criminal punishment for the intellectual author of a murder against a journalist. In your opinion, what were the key factors that made this possible?

JR: I believe that impunity for the killing of journalist Santiago Leguizamón has set a terrible precedent for the judiciary in Paraguay. And I believe that it was the country's outstanding debt to the right to freedom of expression that pushed the country not to let another event of such magnitude go unpunished.

Even more so, if we take into consideration that the country was denounced before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, on January 19, 2007, by the Inter-American Press Society, which highlights the international responsibility of the Paraguayan State for alleged violations enshrined in the American Convention on Human Rights.

I believe that it was this complaint filed against the country, in addition to the prompt and effective intervention of the Public Prosecutor's Office to clarify the facts, that led to the sentencing of the mastermind of the crime to one of the highest penalties in the country.

How important were national and international standards on freedom of expression to the case? 

JR: I must say that both national and international standards have been of paramount importance to the Court that considered this case, brought to the courthouse for elucidation.

I considered national and international laws, as it was certainly noticeable in the reading of the judgment, and in particular, I highlighted a ruling of the Inter-American Court, where the Court condemned the Colombian State in the case of Velez Restrepo vs Colombia. At the same time, I took into consideration the 1999 Joint Declaration of the UN, OSCE and OAS Special Rapporteurs for Freedom of Expression.

To what extent, in your opinion, does this constitute a historic ruling for the safety of journalists in Paraguay? 

JR: I think it is historic, as it is the first ruling on the subject in Paraguay to condemn a moral or intellectual author for the murder of a journalist, in open violation of the right to freedom of expression.

I believe that with this decision, Paraguay has settled the historical debt of not issuing an exemplary sanction for the death of Leguizamón. This ruling sets a precedent that an event of similar gravity will not be tolerated again. Therefore, I believe that this sentence should bring further security to journalists. Whenever the principle of freedom of expression is violated, the Paraguayan State, through the Judiciary and the Public Ministry, will re-establish the legal order that has been violated.

How do you think this "message" has been or will be received by those who want to silence journalists? 

JR: In the same way that the people who took the life of Pablo Medina and his assistant Antonia Almada intended to leave a message by assassinating them, the Paraguayan State, through the Judiciary and the Public Ministry, left a "clear message" for all those who intend to commit this type of crimes to silence journalists. And the message was very clear: impunity will not be tolerated again in this country. The sentence for the crime was the highest applied for such an act. Right now, another of the co-authors is awaiting trial.

On 1 March 2021 the online conference ”The role of the judiciary and international cooperation to foster safety of journalists – What works?” explored effective ways on how judges, prosecutors and lawyers, as well as regional human rights courts and judicial training institutes can combat impunity for crimes against journalists. A special spotlight will be shed on gender-specific and gender-based crimes.