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World Perspective | CENSORSHIP

Chile's 'Insult' Laws Take Slap at Democracy

Judges may ban books on suspicion that material offends a public official. Authors face potential five-year jail terms.

May 01, 1999|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BUENOS AIRES — Nine years after democracy returned to Chile, state terrorism is a fading memory and people no longer disappear.

Books, however, are another story.

On April 13, author Alejandra Matus launched a new investigative work, "The Black Book of Chilean Justice," at a reception in Santiago. The next morning, police detectives showed up at the Planeta publishing house and at bookstores around the city. They confiscated more than 1,200 books and hauled them away in a van, after telling the booksellers that their stores would be closed if they sold any hidden copies.

Lawyers warned Matus that she was in imminent danger of arrest, so the journalist and her boyfriend rushed to the airport and caught a flight to Buenos Aires.

"I knew there could be a strong reaction to the book," Matus, 33, said in a telephone interview this week from Miami, where she has lived intermittently since winning a U.S. journalism fellowship in 1997. "But I did not expect the reaction to be so fast or so violent.

"I did not think they would commit the barbarity of confiscating the book, with all the damage that implies for Chile's international image."

Matus became the fourth Chilean author since 1993 to run afoul of that country's State Security Law, which empowers judges to remove texts from circulation if they suspect that the material offends a public official. The law subjects authors to potential five-year prison terms.

The case has caused another uproar about freedom of expression among Chileans and international defenders of the press. Although Chile's democratic transition is regarded as a model of political compromise and economic modernization, the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch concluded last year that "freedom of expression and information is restricted in Chile to an extent possibly unmatched by any other democratic society in the Western hemisphere."

In the wake of the Matus incident, prominent lawyers, political leaders and press organizations have appealed the judicial order and have renewed efforts to pass long-delayed laws against censorship. Bookstores have sold the book clandestinely, and a newspaper made it available on the Internet.

Even the president of the Supreme Court, an institution that gets scathing scrutiny in "The Black Book," admitted that it is time to modify antiquated laws.

Latin American governments are still trying to dismantle legislation such as "insult" laws, which shield public officials even when the supposed affronts to their honor result from responsible investigative journalism. Chile's restrictive policies originated early in the century and worsened during the harsh military dictatorship that ruled the nation between 1973 and 1990.

"I'm not aware of another case in the region, other than one in Grenada, where books have been banned," said Marylene Smeets of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. "Chile is extreme, even in the context of Latin America."

After dictator Augusto Pinochet stepped down, he and his allies continued to use the military justice system to retaliate against civilian critics, charging them with sedition. At least seven politicians and 15 journalists have been prosecuted under the State Security Law, which defines criticism of government officials as a threat to public order.

In 1996, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ruled that using the law to ban the sale of a book about a scandal involving diplomats and the business elite violated a hemispheric human rights accord.

A judge ordered the confiscation of Matus' book based on a lawsuit filed by former Supreme Court Justice Servando Jordan, who narrowly escaped impeachment in a scandal in which court officials allegedly protected accused drug traffickers. Jordan had previously used the law to prosecute four other journalists, who were briefly detained.

Matus' book draws on her years as a reporter in the courts to offer a sweeping panorama of political manipulation and corruption in the Chilean justice system. Her confrontation with that system could, in the long run, bring about breakthroughs for freedom of expression, experts say.

For the moment, however, she finds herself in exile.

"There's really no defense against this law. You have to decide," she said, "either to write or not to write. I chose to write. A lot of media in Chile, unfortunately, choose not to write."

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