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Peruvian journalist who unveiled Catholic scandals wins press award

ROME – Peruvian journalist Paola Ugaz, famous for her reporting on a troubled Catholic lay group, has won an international award recognizing her for courage in continuing to investigate regardless of both personal and legal threats.

The “Courage in Journalism” award since 1990 has been bestowed annually by the Washington, D.C.-based International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) as a means of honoring women’s contributions to what, until recently, has been a male-dominated field.

Ugaz was recognized during a Nov. 4 virtual ceremony hosted by CNN’s Christian Amanpour, and which was organized in partnership with the Washington Post.

Other award recipients include India’s Khabar Lahariya of the first and only news organization run solely by women from marginalized communities; Belarusian journalists Katsyaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova for their coverage of anti-government protests in Belarus last summer; and United States documentary photographer Vanessa Charlot, for her efforts to capture racial tensions and protests following the death of George Floyd in police custody in May 2020.

Currently a correspondent for the Spanish daily ABC in Peru, Ugaz became a household name throughout Latin America in 2015, when she and fellow Peruvian journalist Pedro Salinas co-authored the book Half Monks, Half Soldiers detailing years of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse inside the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV).

One of Latin America’s most prominent Catholic organizations, the SCV is a group of consecrated men established in Peru in the 1970s by layman Luis Fernando Figari, who also founded two women’s communities and who is accused of physical, psychological, and sexual abuses, including of minors.  In 2017 Figari was prohibited by the Vatican from having further contact with members of the group and is now living in exile.

Both Ugaz and Salinas have continued their reporting on the SCV, and both have faced mounting legal threats related to their work.

Ugaz’s legal woes began in 2018 when Archbishop Jose Antonio Eguren Anselmi of Piura, who is a member of the SCV, launched charges of criminal defamation against both her and Salinas, charging Ugaz specifically for a series of tweets about him and for her role in a 2016 Al Jazeera documentary called “The Sodalitium Scandal,” which details the purchase of a large patch of land in Piura by the San Juan Bautista Civil Association, which has ties to the SCV, and involvement with a criminal group in the process.

(In the Peruvian system, it doesn’t require a District Attorney to file a criminal complaint for certain offenses, including defamation; one can be registered by a private citizen.)

Though Eguren Anselmi eventually retracted his complaints against Ugaz and Salinas after facing a wave of civil and ecclesial backlash, Ugaz has continued to receive legal notices from individuals linked to the SCV, most of whom accuse her of defamation.

In 2019, Ugaz received five criminal citations for aggravated defamation, more than any other journalist in Peru that year. She has also received death threats.

RELATED: Survivors, bishops say legal campaign against Peruvian journo is ‘harassment’

In total, she has dealt with 12 formal criminal complaints before Peruvian judicial and prosecutorial authorities for defamation related to her reporting, and she has received nearly a hundred notarized letters threatening legal action.

In Peruvian law, an individual must submit three notarized letters before formal legal proceedings can begin.

Currently, Ugaz is battling three different active criminal cases, two of which were launched by individuals either with ties to or employed by a project of the SCV, and one in which she is accused of laundering money.

In comments to Crux, Ugaz said the accusations were originally made in a report published in Peruvian paper Expreso, but they are “based on a lie…everything is false, but I have still been investigated since February of this year for money laundering.”

Ugaz said that her accuser in the formal legal complaint presented the newspaper report as evidence against her. Because of this, she believes the report was planned as a means of launching the legal complaint.

What is sad, she said, is that “for two decades powerful and political organizations use the judiciary and the prosecution as whips against the journalists who investigate them.”

In her brief acceptance speech during Thursday’s award ceremony, Ugaz, who was congratulated by the United States Embassy to Peru on Twitter for her award, said that for her, “It is an honor as a Latin American journalist to receive this award.”

She dedicated the award to her partner, her parents, and her children, saying that on a personal level, “It is a dream come true that Christiane Amanpour spoke with such knowledge about my work on Sodalitium, which it is not finished yet.”

Ugaz gave a shout-out to several colleagues who have collaborated with her in her reporting on the SCV, including Salinas and Chilean clerical abuse survivor and member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Juan Carlos Cruz.

She also dedicated the award to survivors of the SCV who she named, and to “many others who I cannot name to protect their safety.”

Quoting American newspaper publisher Katharine Graham, Ugaz said that when she first started doing journalism, “I had very little idea of what I was supposed to be doing. So, I set out to learn. What I essentially did was put one foot in front of the other, shut my eyes, and step off the edge.”

“When I look back and I remember why I dedicated to this passion called journalism, I feel that what Graham said is similar to what I do every day,” she said, adding that “despite the death threats I have received, the harassment on social networks, and the judicial harassment that I suffer today, everything I have published has been worthwhile.”

Ugaz cited an early mentor in her journalistic work, saying, “fear should not be the editor of a journalist. I will continue to publish, and my only response to the attacks against me will be more and better journalism.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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