EspañolArgentina’s Anti-Terrorism Act, signed December 2011, may be employed for the very first time anywhere in the country in the case of journalist Juan Pablo Suárez, charged with “inciting collective violence” and “terrorizing the population” in the federal court of the Santiago del Estero province. The offenses are punishable by up to 12 years in prison, and the criminal complaint against Suárez has generated controversy throughout social networks and media in Argentina.
The Última Hora journalist is accused of having filmed the arrest of police officer Nelson Villagrán when he tried to chain himself to the central plaza in the capital, protesting for wage increases last December.
A wave of similar police strikes kept much of the country on the edge of their seats in late 2013, when looting and street violence in broad daylight broke out in some provinces.
Minutes after the video’s publication, authorities raided the offices of Última Hora and arrested Suárez, who then spent over a week in a medium-security prison accused of sedition and incitement of violence.
However, Peter Simon, the prosecutor in the case, told Cadena 3 on Tuesday morning that Suárez had not been arrested because of the video’s publication, but for “spreading false information” regarding the looting.
“President Kirchner says she lived in a state of terror during her youth [referring to the military dictatorship], but she should know that to live in Argentina during her rule is also scary,” said the accused journalist.
Simon referred the case to the Federal Court judge after adding the charge of “terrorizing the population” (Penal Code article 41d) to the initial charge of “incitement to collective violence” (Penal Code article 212).
Therefore, Suárez stands accused of terrorism under Article 41 of Argentinean law: “When any of the offenses in this Code has been committed in order to terrorize the population or to compel local or national authorities, foreign governments or agents of an international organization to perform or refrain from an act, penalties will be increased by twice the minimum and maximum.”
After being advised of the changes to his case, Suárez explained: “The Federal Court told me that although they did not change the case’s cover sheet in accordance with Penal Code Article 212, which contemplates penalties of three to six years in jail, what did change was the definition of the alleged offense, amended by article 41 of the Anti-terrorism Act. This doubled the possible prison sentence to 6-12 years.”
The journalist, who has already been questioned by the court, added, “There are strong measures, and there are people who are weak enough to be afraid. This is a case that will stand as an example. Anyone who dares to confront the provincial government could go through the same.”
He also told the newspaper Perfil that “Zamora [governor of Santiago del Estero] and his wife have the press silenced.” He then recounted what took place after his arrest: “After my release, the cause went on. But during that time, they destroyed my work material. The broke everything a journalist needs to work: two notebooks, a desktop CPU, cell phone, camcorder.”
The Anti-Terrorism Law, decreed by President Kirchner and later approved by the National Congress, was put into effect in December 2011 to increase penalties for crimes associated with terrorizing the public.
Aníbal Fernandez, the president’s former chief of staff and current senator, told a local radio station in December 2011: “It is nonsense to think that this law was designed with social demonstrations or journalism in mind. That law was clearly made with terrorism in mind, and Argentineans know very well what it is all about.”
Kirchner defended the adoption of the new law at the time by emphasizing the need to protect the state against terrorist threats. “What was approved addresses the harsh realities of what happens when terrorism strikes, and we do not negotiate with terrorists.”
Minister of the Interior Florencio Randazzo also defended the law, saying “It is explicit within the law that it is not to affect human, social, or civil rights, like the right to information, and much less the right to protest.”
Miguel Pichetto, who led the ruling party in the Senate at the time, explained that the law meets the objective of aligning Argentina with the requirements of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an organization which fights money laundering and the financing of terrorist groups.
“This is an essential policy to comply with the FATF requirements, and all other interpretations that were made opposing it are unfounded and politically unrealistic,” said Pichetto.
Criticism of the Anti-Terrorism Act
The first organization that came to the defense of Suárez was the Argentinean Journalism Forum (Fopea), which unites more than 300 journalists throughout the country. Fopea released a statement rejecting the application of the law as “limiting the rights of free speech and the press.”
The journalism organization contends “the law should not be used against fundamental human rights, such as expression through media, nor used to silence voices and opinions.”
Laura Alonso, congresswoman and member of the opposition party Union Pro, also repudiated the application of the Anti-Terrorism Act and reminded the Argentinean people that she introduced a bill to repeal the law in 2012 because it “violates individual liberties.”
Pediré q se reúna la Comisión de Libertad de Expresión con urgencia y q invite al periodista Juan P Suárez a contar su caso #LeyMordaza
— Laura Alonso (@lauritalonso) May 12, 2014
In her request to repeal the law, which carries the signatures from 80 civic organizations, she writes: “The document [by law] puts into evidence that the anti-terrorism legislation uses concepts so open and vague that it will make it possible to apply the law to criminalize social protests: to persecute the resistance of evictions, blocking roads, or other simple acts of protest in a public space.”
In further statements to the press, has Suárez condemned what he believes is a hostile situation for the press in his province, one of the poorest in Argentina.
“The oppression and censorship of the press is absolute. The only outlet that is not aligned with the government is my own. And we’re just a website. Of course, because we oppose the government, we have a high readership. The rest of the press has been absolutely silenced.”
According to the latest press freedom report by Freedom House, Argentina is ranked as a country with “partial” freedom of the press.