Chilean President sues journalists: what really is at stake

The relationship between the Presidents and the press has always been a complicated one.
And it should be: as journalists we have the right -and more important, the duty- to make power accountable. I know that I don't have to explain this to the citizens of the country where some of the most outstanding cases for free speech have taken place. The country of the so called Watergate case -to begin with-, and of so many journalistic investigations that have created the canon of independence for many of us around the world. Among other elements, those experiences and situations have consolidated a society in the United States that understands and supports the value of free speech, free press and journalistic freedom, even with the risks that this implies.

In Chile we are living now a situation where these significant values are at risk. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet (former UN Women founder and Executive Director) has decided to sue four journalists for libel.

This is the first time, after the return of democracy in Chile, that a President has done something as serious as this. Of course differences with the press have existed with the five Presidents that have taken office after Pinochet dictatorship ended in 1990. But nothing like this.

Why this is happening in Chile, a democracy that has been considered solid and mature compared to their neighbor's in Latin America, and that enjoys so far Freedom of Speech and Free Press?

Part of the explanation is political. President's Bachelet second mandate has the lowest approbation rates seen in decades: only 24% approves her leadership. One of the reasons might be the radicalism of her program, the amount, speed and depth of the changes she is leading simultaneously, alienating this way a great part of the center minded electorate.

But another big explanation lies within her family: her son and daughter in law have created a political and personal nightmare for her. The so called "Caval case" is an ongoing investigation against Natalia Compagnon, married to her son and mother of her grandchildren, for corruption charges related to a speculative land deal that yielded millions of dollars in profit for Caval. This investigation of corruption in her inner circle, -even if she is not investigated herself- has damaged her reputation and the public trust. Unfair as this might sound, the mistakes of your family -if you are President- are part of the worst things that can be held against you, and all authorities in the world know this.

Last week, Qué Pasa magazine -the same one that published Caval Case for the first time- released another piece of information, both in the print magazine and in the website, a leak of a transcript of a telephone conversation of a witness that said that she might receive money if the business of her daughter in law succeeded. He also mentioned a bunch of politicians and involved them in illegal activities. Is important to say that this witness, Juan Díaz, has no credibility whatsoever and that the prosecutor said afterwards that this man knew that he was been recorded when he said this over the phone. The complaints for the lack of check and reporting of this pretty serious information arrived immediately, and two hours later, the magazine declared that the publication of this information -without further context and reporting- did not meet their editorial standards, they eliminated the article in the website and apologized. Afterwards, the print version appeared with a more extracted version of this article, -and only mentioning the President- but possibly it went to print before the apology was made.

President Bachelet -understandably- was outraged by this publication that accused her and attacked her integrity. But instead of making a solid complain, and allow the journalistic debate that begun that day to thrive, she decide to sue.

It's a huge mistake in every way. Qué Pasa has received the support of most of the Journalistic community and associations of Chile and of the region, including Humans Rights Watch, National Association of the Press, SIP. Because as media professionals, we can't tolerate that the complicated relationship between power and press ends up in a threat of jail time to four Chilean journalists, as the sue demands. That is unbearable.

Even if the press makes mistakes -As Qué Pasa recognized very soon- the independent and free frame for the activity has to be preserved and protected, without censorship and coercion.
I hope that the time for a deep reflection arrives at the presidential office, and that this legal action might be withdrawn soon: Not only for Qué Pasa and Chilean journalists, but also for the prestige of the presidential institution in my country.