The killing of a newly qualified teacher who was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a man who had only recently been released from jail shocked Spain.
But a legal case against a journalist who had covered the subsequent investigation and trial has also sent shock waves through the media community.
Laura Luelmo, a 26-year-old teacher who had just moved to El Campillo, was killed December 2018 in a village in southern Spain.
Her death led to questions in the Spanish parliament over the release of convicted killers after it emerged that the suspect, Bernardo Montoya, had served 17 years behind bars for beating an elderly woman to death.
In 2021, Montoya was found guilty of murder, rape and kidnapping and was jailed for life. He denied any wrongdoing.
But in the first case of its kind in Spain, a court later handed down a two-year prison sentence to a journalist accused of revealing details from a judicial investigation that had been placed under a secrecy order.
Judges in the case argued that the journalist, who at the time worked for the regional daily, Huelva Información, reported details that were not in the public interest and had violated the deceased’s right to privacy.
‘Not good for democracy’
The ruling troubles Javier Ronchel, director of Huelva Información.
“We are very worried because this case goes against the fundamental principles of the Spanish constitution, which guarantees the freedom of expression,” he told VOA.
“It is very dangerous for the profession of journalism. The judges are judging what is news and what is not. This is dangerous. As journalists and professionals, we have this ability to decide what is news,” Ronchel said.
Kathy Kiely, the Lee Hills chair of Free Press Studies at the Missouri School of Journalism in the U.S., told VOA that this was a classic case of “killing the messenger.”
“We don’t need Spain to be putting a journalist in jail. It is not good for democracy,” she said in a telephone interview.
“Really, what they are doing is punishing a journalist for reporting a terrible crime. The anger should be directed at the person who carried out the crime. I can understand the family, but the judges should be better than that,” Kiely said.
VOA tried to contact judicial authorities in Huelva and the Spanish Ministry of Justice for comment on the case but did not receive a response to its emails.
Judges covering criminal cases in Spain regularly impose secrecy orders during investigations, but aspects of the case are often leaked to the media. The right to free expression is enshrined in the Spanish constitution and can be used by the media as a defense if challenged.
Legal right to privacy
In its ruling that was made public last week, the court said the journalist, who requested anonymity, had contravened Luelmo’s right to privacy. Under Spanish law, victims still have a right to privacy even when deceased.
The case against the newspaper was brought by Luelmo’s family as a civil case and the public prosecutor in a rare criminal prosecution.
Luelmo’s family and the prosecutor argued that the newspaper reported details of injuries and from the post-mortem examination that were not in the public interest.
In the legal judgment, seen by VOA, the family and prosecutor complained about six aspects of the reporting.
These included reporting on the conflicting versions that Montoya gave to police about the crime, details of injuries, toxicology reports and a CCTV picture of Luelmo before she was kidnapped.
Three judges ruled that the reports “affected the personal sphere of the deceased and her family, which caused damage without any legitimate interest other than that of offering exclusives and scoops at the expense of illegality.”
The ruling said that for the media to use the defense of freedom of expression, they had to justify that the person concerned was a public figure and merited the attention of media reports.
As part of the sentence, the Huelva Court banned the reporter from working in journalism for two years, fined her $3,510 and ordered her to pay $32,910 in compensation to Luelmo’s parents. Another journalist at Huelva Información was found not guilty.
The 41-year-old journalist, who has since left the newspaper, told VOA she does not want to be named until the appeals court rules on the case.
She denies any wrongdoing and is currently free pending appeal.
She told VOA she didn’t want to comment on the sentence but added via email, ”I have a very clear conscience because I have only done my job, as I always did as a court journalist in my 17 years of experience.”
In her email, she thanked her colleagues for “the respect and support they have shown me. It’s touching to receive so many expressions of affection.”
Her case caught the attention of local media association AMI and international watchdog Reporters Without Borders, or RSF.
The AMI, which represents 80 Spanish media outlets, said the ruling was a “serious violation of the right to freedom of information.”
On social media, RSF posted: “Serious! The Huelva Court sentences a journalist to two years for revealing secrets in a summary, something quite common in court journalism.” The watchdog added that it hoped Spain’s Supreme Court would reverse the decision.