Venezuelan Journalist Sentenced for Defamation

Ibéyise Pacheco, who accused a military officer of wrongdoing in columns she wrote for one of Venezuela's main newspapers, was given a nine month sentence for defamation. The case has attracted much attention for allegedly being an example of the persecution of journalists in Venezuela.

Caracas, Venezuela, marzo 20, 2006—Wednesday, Ibéyise Pacheco, editor of the opposition Venezuelan tabloid, “Así es la Noticia” (“The News Is Like This”) was given permission to complete her prison sentence under house arrest rather than in prison, on the grounds that her physical wellbeing could not be ensured in prison.

Pacheco had been sentenced to nine months for defamation against Angel Bellorín, a colonel in the army. She was convicted under article 444 of the penal code, which prescribes 3 to 18 months in prison for any communication which “attributes to an individual a deed able to expose him to scorn or public hate, or offend his honor or reputation.” It extends the penalties to 6 to 30 months if the claim is made in a public document. 

Her defense attorney, Claudia Mujica, said Pacheco has 2 and a half months left in her sentence, and that there will be no police presents at her house, according to the Venezuelan government’s ABN.

According to El Universal, Pacheco was originally sentenced to nine months in prison, but the judge essentially substituted this sentence with parole, mandating that she periodically appear every 15 days before the court.

During this period, Bellorín accused Pacheco of continuing to defame him in her column, published in the Venezuelan daily El Nacional. The editorial page of El Nacional is known for its almost manic opposition to the Venezuelan government, similar to that of the Wall Street Journal. According to El Universal, Bellorín said he asked to be given space in the paper to reply to the allegations, but was not allowed to, so he brought charges against the journalist for continued aggravated defamation.

Pacheco publicly apologized to Bellorín last month, thereby avoiding the possibility of being convicted on these charges, which could have led to three more years in prison. In Venezuela, receiving the forgiveness of the offended party in defamation cases can lead to the charges being dropped. According to El Universal, the attorney’s of Bellorín and Pacheco worked out the apology.

“I am profoundly sorry that because of that piece, Coronel Bellorín found his honor and reputation affected, it was never in my spirit the intention of discrediting him or exposing him to public scorn…Having adequately reviewed the documentation given to my lawyers, which demonstrate the academic and professional merits of Coronel Bellorín, of which I am now convinced, our long judicial confrontation has been avoided. Equally, I confirm my commitment in my professional work as a journalist, my fight for truth and my respect and fulfillment of the Ethical Code of Journalists,” Pacheco said.

Immediately after the apology, Bellorín said he would wait to see how well the media covered the apology before offering his pardon, which he eventually did.

The allegation against Bellorín that led to the original case was that he had forged a grade he had obtained in a tax law course, while in his fifth semester of his law degree in the University of Santa María. Later Pacheco accused him of mistreating his girlfriend in her column, reported El Universal.

According to El Nacional, after last Wednesday’s ruling, Bellorín said that he would keep his promise not to bring any more charges against Pacheco, even though he could appeal the ruling that allowed her to carry out the rest of her prison sentence under house arrest rather than in jail. Venezuelan prisons well known for their brutality, and in Venezuela it is not uncommon for wealthy people to avoid jail on the basis of health or wellness grounds.

Bellorín visited the court in order to find out if the second action he had brought against Pacheco had been dropped after his pardon, reported El Nacional. He went on to say that he was against the political overtone and media circus that had recently characterized the case.

“It’s necessary to make clear that Ibeýise Pacheco is convicted for having defamed me, and not because of the government or the public ministry. What’s more, when a person is convicted what’s normal is for them to go to prison,” said Bellorín told El Nacional.

Pacheco has said she’s the victim of political persecution. “What a coincidence that the accusing parties are the legal representatives of the famous rulers of this regime, that there has been an absolute lack of balance in this entire process, because while all the accusing parties have been given privileges, kindness, and benefits, they have treated me as what I feel I am, a target of this government that considers me part of the dissidence. What’s more, they consider me dangerous, because I look for the truth,” she told the Venezuelan daily 2001, a week before apologizing.

Since her apology, the Colegio Nacional de Periodistas (National Association of Journalists) has met to discuss the increase in prosecution of journalists, mentioning her case. Reporters without Borders and the Inter-American Press Association had also previously taken note of her case with concern.

At one point Pacheco had 15 cases pending against her because of allegedly false information she provided in her columns.  

According to Le Monde Diplomatique, during the April 2002 coup, dissident Vice-Admiral Victor Ramirez Perez congratulated Pacheco on her role in the media. "We had a deadly weapon: the media. And now that I have the opportunity, let me congratulate you." Previous to that, on Venevision, she had admitted to having had a longstanding relationship with dissident generals. Some government supporters have speculated that she has used these generals as sources.