- A court in Peru has formally dismissed a defamation case filed by an agribusiness company against Yvette Sierra Praeli, a reporter for Mongabay Latam, Mongabay’s Spanish-language bureau that primarily serves Latin America.
- On Monday, the Fourth Criminal Chamber of Lima ruled by majority to dismiss the aggravated defamation claim presented by Tamshi SAC, a plantation company the Peruvian government has prosecuted for “crimes against the environment” in the Amazon.
- The decision brings to an end a case that began nearly a year ago when Tamshi SAC sued Sierra over a story she published on Mongabay Latam about an investigation led by Alberto Yusen Caraza, a member of the Loreto Specialized Environmental Prosecutor’s Office, that resulted in a July 2019 conviction against three Tamshi officials for environmental crimes.
- The decision may have broader implications for environmental journalism in Peru, says Sierra’s attorney.
A court in Peru has formally dismissed a defamation case filed by an agribusiness company against Mongabay Latam journalist Yvette Sierra Praeli.
On Monday, the Fourth Criminal Chamber of Lima ruled by majority to dismiss the aggravated defamation claim presented by Tamshi SAC, a plantation company the Peruvian government has prosecuted for “crimes against the environment” in the Amazon. The decision brings to an end a case that began nearly a year ago when Tamshi SAC sued Sierra over a story she published on Mongabay Latam about an investigation led by Alberto Yusen Caraza, a member of the Loreto Specialized Environmental Prosecutor’s Office, that resulted in a July 2019 conviction against three Tamshi officials for environmental crimes.
“There is no impact on the honor, reputation, dignity or qualities of the prestige of Tamshi SAC company,” said Sierra’s lawyer, Carlos Rivera, during a September 17, 2021 hearing. Tamshi did not send a representative to the hearing.
Rivera, who is a member of the Legal Defense Institute (IDL), called Tamshi SAC’s suit an effort to block the “free exercise of two freedoms: freedom of information and freedom of speech.”
The court’s ruling ratifies a January 2021 decision by the 35th Criminal Court of Lima to not admit the complaint filed by Tamshi SAC. The 35th Criminal Court of Lima concluded that the article had no criminal content since the information about the company was in the public interest.
Court: A case of freedom of expression
The article at the center of the case focused on the Peruvian government’s legal action against Tamshi SAC, a company formerly known as Cacao del Perú Norte SAC, which converted nearly 2,000 hectares of rainforest in the Peruvian Amazon to cacao plantations since 2013. The article included information about the investigations led by Caraza.
Objecting to the use of the term “deforestation” to describe its activities, Tamshi SAC sued Sierra for aggravated defamation and sought 500,000 soles ($122,000) in damages. Sierra faced a potential three-year suspended prison sentence if convicted.
But two courts have now rejected the suit. In the first, Judge María Contreras Gonzáles of the 35th Criminal Court of Lima said the published report did not include sentences of criminal relevance or degrading content. She stated that the comments, observations, and criticisms have been made “in the exercise of the right to freedom of speech and information.”
For this reason, the judge stated that the Mongabay article does not harm the “prestige” of Tamshi SAC and rather constitutes “informative notes on a matter of public interest, such as the environmental damage that has been perpetrated to the forests.”
Sierra’s attorney agreed.
“The first decision was not only correct, but absolutely in accordance with the law and a precedent,” said Rivera of the decision. “It has made a difference in relation to many other cases against journalists in which the judiciary simply made the decision to open a legal process, despite the fact that in many cases there was no evidence of having committed the crime of defamation.
“It is also a matter of public interest without any type of injury to the honor or good reputation of the company.”
Rivera said the decision has broader implications for environmental journalism in Peru.
“This judicial resolution has a particular relevance because it constitutes the first decision that the Judiciary has issued on a case of an environmental journalist whose reporting on environmental crimes constitutes the exercise of freedom of information and speech.”
Tamshi SAC: a company with a history of legal actions
The case against Sierra is not the only one initiated by Tamshi SAC. In February 2021, the company sued the Public Prosecutor of the Ministry of the Environment, Julio Guzmán, for the crime of procedural fraud and falsification of documents. In this specific case, the company questioned the reports prepared by experts from the Ministry of the Environment that were used as evidence in the 2019 trial against Tamshi SAC officials. These reports contained satellite images showing changes in forest cover in the area where the Tamshiyacu plantation is located. According to Tamshi’s legal representative, the report includes areas that are outside the company’s territories.
“It is an act of intimidation,” Guzmán said. “They are suing me for doing my job. And just like they do with me, they do it with other prosecutors.”
Three other officials from the Ministry of the Environment were also included in the lawsuit and have been charged with crimes for their involvement in the preparation and review of the report.
“This is an unfortunate practice of intimidation against officials of the Ministry of the Environment who are simply doing their job and generating evidence about the crimes of these companies. It is absolutely unfair and absolutely inadmissible that we have companies with this type of totally unethical practices,” said former Environment Minister Gabriel Quijandría, who left office in July 2021.
Tamshi SAC has also filed a complaint against Lucila Pautrat, director of the Kené Institute of Forestry and Environmental Studies. The process began in June 2019, when the company sued Pautrat with the alleged crime of aggravated defamation after she published two statements on Kené’s website.
In March of this year, Pautrat was sentenced to two years of conditional prison and to the payment of 50,000 soles ($12,200). The defense has appealed the sentence and has requested the annulment of it.
“We present evidence that each paragraph was supported by complaints from farmers who signed affidavits; as well as a document where Tamshi S.A.C. the company recognizes what its judgments are,” said Carlos Bravo, Pautrat’s defense attorney.
Bravo said the sentence against Pautrat represented “a terrible precedent for the defense of environmental rights.”
Header image: Zoom.earth satellite image showing an area of forest cleared for a cacao plantation outside of Tamshiyacu, Peru.
Disclosure: Lawyers representing Cacao del Perú Norte SAC’s parent company United Cacao Limited SEZC threatened legal action in 2015 against Mongabay for its reporting