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Landmark Ruling in Uruguay: Court Dismisses $450k SLAPP Suit Against La Diaria

Landmark Ruling in Uruguay: Court Dismisses $450k SLAPP Suit Against La Diaria

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By Edison Lanza and Matías Jackson

A recent first instance ruling by a Civil Court in Montevideo (Uruguay) dismissed a damages lawsuit with characteristics of a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) filed against the print and digital media outlet La Diaria.

After a civil process that took two years, the landmark ruling concluded that there was no “illicit act” in the disputed report, given the public interest and “fundamental importance” of the subject matter. The decision also established that plaintiffs must meet a high and precise threshold of evidence for damage claims against the press to succeed.

The case

In April 2022, a former senior official of the Ministry of Social Development, in charge of the area for people with disabilities, initiated a civil action against La Diaria for a report about her activity leading a non-governmental organization with a program called “Articulated Families.” This program was aimed at supporting vulnerable families in raising children with disabilities.

According to La Diaria’s publication in December 2020, the program had been subject to criminal investigations, particularly because several cases ended with the adoption of children by affluent families supporting the program. Following the publication of the report, the official resigned from her position as Director of the Care System and sued the media outlet, claiming a total of $450,000 for alleged impacts on her health, moral damage, and lost earnings, both for her and her husband.

Key Points of the Ruling

The former official’s lawsuit characterised La Diaria’s report as “illicit” and accused the journalist of exposing her and her husband to “public hatred.” However, the ruling concluded that these claims were “not sufficiently substantiated.” The court found no evidence that the report literally accused the plaintiffs of “deliberately exposing them to hatred” of “selling children”. The court determined that the language did not aim to intentionally harm the plaintiffs.

In the public interest
The ruling noted that the report was based on access to a judicial file that involved many legal and social operators and addressed “a matter of fundamental importance to society, specifically parentage involving disabilities and minors who have the right to live in a family and achieve full development.” Consequently, the court concluded that La Diaria did not commit any illicit act, which means there was no need to further analyse causation and damages.

No special legal protection for public officials
The decision emphasised that public officials, including the plaintiffs who held positions in the Ministry of Social Development and as a professor at the Faculty of Psychology, do not have special legal protections that exempt their actions from scrutiny by the press. The magistrate overseeing the case clarified that there was no justification for excluding archived criminal investigations from the news agenda, which formed the basis of a journalistic report. The ruling underscored the accuracy of the article in question, which detailed investigations into the plaintiffs’ activities and noted that despite thorough inquiry, no criminal charges had been brought against them.

Protecting freedom of expression
The ruling further upheld international standards safeguarding freedom of expression. It referenced Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights, which stipulates that any restrictions on freedom of the press must originate from clear and precise laws, must balance against other human rights, national security, public health, and morals, and must ultimately be a necessary limitation within a democratic framework. These limitations must be proportional to the intended goal and appropriate for achieving the objective at hand.

Proving the Damages

Regarding the claimed damages, the judge made several clarifications. Regarding lost earnings, the ruling clarified that there was no evidence linking the official’s resignation to the journalistic report or any previously discussed statements. The resignation letter itself did not provide reasons or seek acceptance but simply communicated the decision to resign.

The ruling further explained that the resignation did not indicate any personal suffering or the necessity to sacrifice the position for a greater cause. Additionally, since the resignation was voluntary and supported by the authorities, there was no basis to claim lost earnings associated with the position.

Furthermore, regarding the alleged health damage, the court pointed out that the plaintiffs failed to provide adequate evidence to substantiate their claims. It questioned whether the alleged health issues were distinct from the general moral damage sought. The ruling noted the absence of expert evidence, which is essential for scientifically assessing technical matters beyond the magistrate’s expertise.

The situation in Uruguay: Contextual Considerations

Civil defamation on the rise as a harassment tool
Due to the reform of defamation and slander laws in 2008, Uruguay established that the dissemination of information and opinions of public interest is not punishable criminally. This reform has allowed for the dismissal of dozens of lawsuits against the press in Uruguay since then.

By reducing the possibilities of criminal charges, civil lawsuits have become the preferred harassment tool in this country. During 2022, the organisation CAinfo recorded 19 judicial processes initiated against journalists or media, many of them based on civil claims that involved disproportionately high compensation requests. Most of these actions are filed by officials with political responsibilities or high-profile individuals, aiming to retaliate against or intimidate the journalist or media.

Chilling effect
This type of litigation also creates a chilling effect on the press and can significantly affect journalists’ financial stability. This is especially concerning given that economic sustainability is a weak spot for investigative journalism outlets. The case discussed in this article illustrates the real-world impact of such civil lawsuits. The decisive outcome of the initial ruling represents progress, as the officials who brought the lawsuit opted not to appeal, despite having the option to do so. However, defending against the lawsuit required extensive effort over two years, involving journalists and media directors. Moreover, the media outlet faced additional financial burdens due to the substantial damages claimed, including legal fees, taxes, and other expenses, which were not reimbursed by the ruling.

The need to recognise SLAPPs
While this ruling sets an important precedent in discouraging unfounded claims, it would be important for Uruguay to move towards incorporating the concept of lawsuits that infringe on public participation (SLAPPs) into the legal vernacular. These lawsuits are a form of retaliation for the investigation and dissemination of information that is uncomfortable or challenges officials or known actors as occurred in this case. They also create a predictable silencing or censorship effect, while impacting society’s right to receive information.

Legislation that protects the press from such lawsuits would allow these cases to be dismissed early and/or condemn the abuse of legal channels against unfounded claims. Some European jurisdictions and U.S. states have made progress in this regard, which would be a good model for Uruguay and the region to consider.

Interested in this topic? 

Read more about our work defending the media against SLAPPs here.

Media Defence has developed a series of free online resources on freedom of expression available on our Resource Hub. Read more about defamation and reputation or how SLAPPs impacts environmental journalists.

 

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