Reporters Without Borders today condemned the three-month prison sentenced imposed on Gustavo Escanlar Patrone of the Uruguayan public TV station Canal 10 on 18 May for insulting a media baron and urged the authorities to decriminalise press offences even if it seems unlikely that Escanlar will actually go to prison.
“It is not our job to question the substance of the conviction,” the press freedom organisation said. “The plaintiff had a right to take offence at Escanlar's comment on the air. But this kind of case should be heard in a civil court, not a criminal one, and we hope that it will at least result in steps being taken to change the law.”
Reporters Without Borders added: “In the meantime, President Tabaré Vásquez should follow the lead taken by his Brazilian counterpart on 3 May, and by most of his other Latin American colleagues before that, by signing the March 1994 Declaration of Chapultepec on freedom of expression and information, which calls for the decriminalization of press offences.”
A journalist known for being provocative, Escanlar was a guest on one of his own station's talk-shows, “La Culpa es Nuestra” (We are to blame), 18 January. During the show he called one of the other guests, Argentine media owner Federico Fasano, “a son of a bitch.”
Fasano, whose Multimedio Plural group includes the daily La República, the AM Libre radio station and the TV Libre television station, immediately sued Escanlar, demanding that he be sentenced to 18 months in prison, the maximum envisaged under Uruguayan law for defamation, an insult or “besmirching the honour of a foreign head of state.”
During an initial hearing in Montevideo on 11 May, Escanlar acknowledged making the offending remark and refused to withdraw it. He even repeated it in a column posted on a website. Prosecutor Enrique Möller's request on 15 May for a three-month prison sentence was accepted three days later by judge Roberto Timbal, eliciting an angry protest from the Uruguayan Press Association (APU).
Escanlar's lawyer immediately appealed. If Escanlar's conviction is upheld, the worst that could probably happen is that he will be put on probation for one year, instead of a prison term.