By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
Dohle: ”This Judicial Sentence Will Chill Free Speech’International concern is being expressed in response to Monday’s (January 10) court ruling in Lima, where a judge announced a conviction of investigative author and journalist Christopher Acosta and Jerónimo Pimentel, director general of Penguin Random House Perú, on charges of “aggravated defamation.”
While immediately suspending two-year jail sentences for Acosta and Pimental, the court has ordered total payment in damages of what early reports indicate is 400,000 Peruvian soles (US$102,327). Author Acosta and PRH Perú have said they’ll appeal.
Update, January 13: In reponse to our inquiry, Markus Dohle, worldwide CEO of Penguin Random House, has issued a statement on this case, which is raising alarms among international publishing professionals and free-speech advocates.
“Penguin Random House has an unwavering commitment to responsibly publishing books that drive the cultural conversation and political debate,” Dohle says.
“The authors and publishing talent are indispensable in this pursuit. And while we respect the rule of law, we firmly believe that this judicial sentence will chill free speech and political debate and we fully support the decision to appeal the criminal sentence imposed on author Christopher Acosta and the general director of Penguin Random House Perú, Jerónimo Pimentel.
“A better future for generations to come necessitates robust and uninhibited public discussion. Our highest civic duty is to inform that public discourse and foster a deeper understanding of issues and ideas through long-form reading.”
Einarsson: ‘A Shadow Over Freedom of Expression’
Kristenn Einarsson, chair of the Freedom to Publish committee at the Geneva-based International Publishers Association (IPA), has issued a statement this morning, saying:
“Defamation cases are used to silence authors and publishers.
“The severity of this judgement and its inclusion of the CEO of a publishing house will cast a dark shadow over freedom of expression and the freedom to publish in Perú.
“The international publishing community stands in full support of the publisher and author in their appeal.”
At issue is Acosta’s book Plato como cancha: Secretos, impunidad y fortuna de César Acuña, (Money Like Popcorn: Secrets, Impunity, and the Fortune of César Acuña), published by Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial in February.
The book is described on the publisher’s page as “an exhaustive journalistic investigation that reveals the secrets, impunity and fortune of the Peruvian politician César Acuña.”
Pimentel, the Penguin Random House chief in Lima, was a member of the panel on the freedom to publish on November 30 at Guadalajara International Book Fair, part of the IPA’s programming for its 2021 Prix Voltaire ceremony.
In a taped interview with Paola Ugaz for La República, Pimentel calls the case “a strategy of intimidation.”
He tells Ugaz, “This is the criminalization of journalistic work by powerful groups that want to restrict access to quality information.”
Writing on Monday, Camila Osorio for El Pais reports that Acuña had asked the court to order the defendants to pay 100 million soles, or more than US$25 million. Judge Raúl Jesús instead opted to levy fines on all three plaintiffs—Penguin Random House Perú, author Acosta, PRH Peru chief Pimental—for a total 400,000 soles. Osorio reports that the conviction is based on “about 30 sentences in the book.”
“A better future for generations to come necessitates robust and uninhibited public discussion. Our highest civic duty is to inform that public discourse and foster a deeper understanding of issues and ideas through long-form reading.”Markus Dohle, Penguin Random House
She writes that their two-year jail sentences were suspended because “in Perú there is no effective prison for sentences of less than four years,” but that they cannot change their address without prior authorization from a judge, and they will be forced to go to a control office every 60 days.”
The Associated Press in Lima writes that in the book, Acosta “reconstructs the politician’s life from quotes from third parties who knew him, including former employees and his ex-wife. The journalist recounts unknown events in the life of the businessman, owner of a university, a soccer team and head of a political party represented in 22 seats in the current congress, as well as hundreds of municipalities in Perú.”
The author, Acosta, has told the Associated Press, “Acuña, as a public figure, owes an explanation to the country to make him understand why he feels defamed and what part of the book seems to him that damages his honor.”
One element of the conviction is the phrase “crime against honor.” In condemning the court action, the Inter-American Press Association is calling on the Peruvian congress to create legislation to “prevent politicians from using the judicial system to dismantle processes that end up being used to criminalize journalism on actions of public persons and issues of general interest.”
And in today’s story by Paola Nalvarte for the Knight Center’s LatAm Journalism Review, the conviction in Perú becomes all the more alarming, as Acosta describes the on-record quotations he’s used from sources. He says that his book “integrates testimonies of people who–with their first and last names [revealed]–relate events that they lived, heard, or saw of César Acuña. … “It’s not a book from anonymous sources.”
Pimentel: ‘The Criminalization of Journalistic Work’
In-country, the communication arts faculty at the Pontifical Catholic University of Perú has issued a statement expressing “our protest and concert” at the court action. “This conviction in the first instance puts at severe risk the freedom of the press, the exercise of investigative journalism, and the right of citizens to be well informed.”
Governmental condemnations of the court action include Washington’s embassy, saying, “Freedom of expression, including freedom of the press, as the basis of any democracy, is one of the most fundamental human rights. The United States advocates for the strict respect of this right in any part of the world and works every day to strengthen it.”
From the European Union, we read, “The EU reiterates that freedom of the press is one of its fundamental values. Freedom of information and freedom of expression must be promoted and protected everywhere and by all branches of government. This is in the interest of the citizenry and the rule of law. The EU is committed to the promotion of these values, both in Europe and beyond.
More statements of support have come from Reporters Without Borders and the National Association of Journalists of Perú.
Pimental has posted a reaction from Penguin Random House Perú, reading:
“In the case of the complaint filed by senior Cesar Acuna Peralta against senior journalist Christopher Acosta and against the general director of Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial, Jerónimo Pimentel, for the publication in 2021 of the book Plata como cancha, an investigative work published in 2021 under the Aguilar imprint, the publishing house makes it public knowledge that, although it is respectful of judicial decisions, in the present case it has challenged the sentence issued by the Judge of the Thirtieth Criminal Court Liquidator of Lima, Raúl Jesús Vega, so that a higher inquiry may revoke it.
“At Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial, we believe in and encourage the free and responsible exercise of freedom of expression, which is why we do not find factual or legal support for the ruling issued by Judge Vega. We trust that a higher hearing will better weigh the facts and rights in conflict in this case.
“We are convinced that books, the stories they tell, and the ideas they convey, have the power to strengthen dialogue and social cohesion, to change and enrich us, and contribute decisively to creating a better future for generations to come.”
Background on the Lawsuit
As was reported on March 18 from Bogotá by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Acuña is a former mayor, governor, and congressman who made a bid for the Peruvian presidency in April. He filed his lawsuit on March 11, alleging a trademark infringement for the phrase “money like popcorn.”
In the Committee to Protect Journalists’ report at the time, the independent, non-partisan and nonprofit organization referred to the case as a “frivolous trademark complaint” and Natalie Southwick, CPJ’s coordinator for Central and South America, called for the case to be dismissed to “ensure that Acosta’s book, Plata como cacha, can continue to be freely published and distributed.
“Politicians, especially those running for public office,” Southwick said, “are by nature more exposed to public scrutiny, and should not use the legal system to prevent critical coverage.”
The author, Acosta, told CPJ at the time, that Acuña “can’t sue me for the content of the book so he is attacking the way it was published. His goal, of course, is censorship.” Acosta, investigative editor for Latina Noticias, a Peruvian television station, has said that he spent 10 years researching the material in the book and that he stands by its allegations.
More from Publishing Perspectives on freedom of expression is here and more on the freedom to publish is here. More from us on Penguin Random House is here. And more on the International Publishers Association is here.
Publishing Perspectives is the world media partner of the International Publishers Association.
More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.