An appeal court in Lima on 28 June 2005 quashed a sentence for defamation against British journalist Sally Bowen because of technical irregularities. The former correspondent in Peru for the Financial Times and the BBC, had been sentenced by Judge Alfredo Catacora in a lower court on 4 May to pay 3,000 dollars in damages to businessman Fernando Zevallos, about whom she had quoted a detractor in her book "The Imperfect Spy: the life of Vladimiro Montesinos". Charges against her co-author Jane Holligan, had already been lifted since she lives abroad.
10.05.05 - Press freedom trampled as two British journalists sentenced for "defamation"
Reporters Without Borders added its voice to a wave of protest that greeted a guilty verdict for defamation on 4 May against UK journalists Sally Bowen, ex-correspondent in Peru for the Financial Times and the BBC, and Jane Holligan, formerly of the Guardian and Economist.
Both the journalists and businessman Fernando Zevallos, whom they were found to have libelled, have said they would appeal against the court’s verdict.
"It is not so much the sentence itself [payment of damages equivalent to 2,300 euros] but the grounds of the case that present a problem in this case," said Reporters Without Borders.
"The two journalists were sentenced simply for reporting unfavourable comments about Fernando Zevallos in a book. Even if Sally Bowen and Jane Holligan are given the chance to appeal, their sentence constitutes a serious infringement in principle of journalistic work and press freedom."
In their book, "Imperfect Spy: The Many Lives of Vladimiro Montesinos", Bowen and Holligan chart the activities of the former Peruvian intelligence chief during the 1990-2000 presidency of Alberto Fujimori. In one chapter, Oscar Benitez, formerly of the American Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) refers to Fernando Zevallos as a "drug trafficker".
Serious charges have been laid against Zevallos, former owner of the airline Aerocontinente. Suspected by the US administration to be a drug baron, he has faced charges several times in Peru and Chile for money laundering, interfering with witnesses, contract killing and cocaine trafficking. He is currently on trial for allegedly having refloated his former airline with drug trade profits, according to the Associated Press.
Citing [Zevallos’s] presumption of innocence, Judge Alfredo Catacora ordered Bowen and Holligan to pay 10.000 soles (2,300 euros) to the complainant, who had been seeking damages of 10 million dollars.
The ruling caused an outcry. Around 100 Peruvian and foreign journalists demonstrated in front of the law courts in Lima on 6 May, in protest at "corruption and intimidation" exerted on the court system by organised crime.
The special rapporteur for freedom of expression at the Organisation of American States (OEA), Argentine Eduardo Bertoni, expressed his misgivings to the Peruvian government while British Ambassador Richard Ralph voiced his "serious concerns". His US counterpart James Curtis Struble condemned the ruling and repeated the serious suspicions about Fernando Zevallos.
The Peruvian press freedom organisation Instituto Prensa y Sociedad dismissed the verdict on 5 May as "anti-constitutional" and a "direct attack on press freedom".
The Chairman of the Inter American Press Association and editor of the Peruvian daily El Comercio, Alejandro Miro Quesada called the verdict "very dangerous". The organisation on 9 May also urged President Alejandro Toledo to reopen an investigation into the 1989 murder of Todd Smith, journalist on the Florida-based Tampa Tribune who exposed links between the Lighted Path guerrillas and drug-traffickers. Zevallos was suspected as the instigator of the murder but never charged.