SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union said Wednesday it is representing two journalists in challenging Puerto Rico laws that make it a crime to share information about emergencies on the island that the U.S. territory’s government considers “fake news.”
The ACLU said the two laws passed in 2017 and in April 2020 violate the First and 14th Amendments and have a chilling effect on the reporting of the COVID-19 crisis and other emergencies, leaving journalists vulnerable if the government disputes their reporting. If found guilty, violators face up to three years in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.
“The laws only serve to promote fear in those that demand answers and clean government,” said William Ramírez, executive director of the ACLU of Puerto Rico, which filed the lawsuit in federal court.
The laws apply only to things said about emergency conditions in Puerto Rico and the government’s emergency response measures. The ACLU noted that under the law, the government doesn’t have to prove that the speaker knew what they were saying was false.
Justice Secretary Dennise Longo had no comment on the action, saying in a brief statement that the agency had not yet seen the lawsuit.
The lawsuit involves two Puerto Rican journalists: Sandra Rodríguez, who hosts a syndicated radio show and has an online blog, and Rafelli González, an independent journalist. Rodríguez is known for publishing the first 11 pages of a private chat between former Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and other officials that sparked massive protests, which contributed to his eventual resignation.
González worked on stories about a contract that the government awarded to Whitefish, a small Montana firm in the wake of 2017’s Hurricane Maria. It was later canceled and the island’s power company director resigned.
The two journalists are challenging one provision that says it’s a crime to raise a false alarm about an impending emergency or to spread rumors or raise false alarms about “nonexisting abnormalities” during an emergency. The other provision they’re challenging states that it’s a crime to transmit, or allow someone else to transmit, “false information” about an order declaring a state of emergency, disaster or curfew in order to cause confusion or panic.
The lawsuit states that the provisions are vague, have a broad sweep and violate the constitutional rights to free speech and a free press.
“The obvious danger…is that the challenged provisions will be used to selectively prosecute those who criticize the government and its officials,” the ACLU wrote.
In addition, the two journalists stated in court documents that some sources have declined to share information in recent weeks, stating they were concerned they could be prosecuted.
It’s a concern echoed by González: “Even when I am able to confirm the existence of a suspicious contract through two independent sources, I am afraid that we could be prosecuted … because the government has not confirmed the existence of the contract.”