A Spanish court ordered the newspaper to publish the reply of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to a defamatory 2022 article. The court found the newspaper has been fed false information by an association of disgruntled former Witnesses and has uncritically published it.
by Massimo Introvigne
The Spanish Jehovah’s Witnesses won an important case against the Spanish newspaper “El Mundo,” which on November 21, 2022, published a slanderous article based on information supplied by the anti-cult organization Association of Victims of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. On October 2, the Court of First Instance no. 1 of Torrejón de Ardoz dismissed the newspaper argument that responsibility lied only with the Association of Victims of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It ordered “El Mundo” to publish the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ reply and to pay the litigation costs.
In the decision, which is subject to appeal, the court did not limit itself to recognize the right of reply of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It also discussed the merit, finding the allegations of the Association of Victims of Jehovah’s Witnesses both likely to cause damage to the religious organization and inaccurate.
The court found it self-evident that the article “generated verifiable damages” to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. To start with, “the title of the article itself included the word ‘cult’ [‘secta’ in Spanish] that has unquestionable negative connotations with respect to any religion.” The stories coming from the Association of Victims of Jehovah’s Witnesses are, the judges said, “objectively harmful to the fame and credibility [of the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization], such as referring that it is a religious association (which they call a ‘cult’) with ‘cultic’ practices, stating that it causes ‘social death’ to those who leave it, that it ‘compels’ its members not to report crimes, that it alienates its members, and that it ‘encourages physical and moral suicide,’”and so on. Thus, “from any point of view, the article mentions allegations by third parties that cause undeniable damage to the religious association.”
Then, the judges examined “whether the allegations in the article are inaccurate,” and concluded that most are. The decision noted that “the first thing that is striking is the title of the article itself, where the plaintiff entity is catalogued as a ‘cult,’ then throughout the extensive text the terms ‘cultic practices’ are used.” According to the decision, “the information in this case is based on a fact that is clearly inaccurate, since the Jehovah’s Christian Witnesses are a religious denomination registered in the General Section (Minority Religions), inscription number 000068 of the Register of Religious Entities kept at the Ministry of Justice, so we are dealing with a legitimately recognized denomination in our country like many others. Therefore, to classify the plaintiff entity as a cult is legally erroneous since, in the context of the analyzed article, it implies attributing to the plaintiff some pernicious or harmful features as opposed to the rest of the religious confessions legally established in Spain.”
Second, the article refers to “testimonies of alleged victims of sexual abuse within the religious denomination …, alluding to a certain situation in Australia where allegedly ‘they hid more than a thousand cases of sexual abuse.’” The article also mentions a “former Jehovah’s Witness who reports that he was allegedly abused ‘among the Witnesses,’ concluding that ‘they kill you in life,’ and “another former witness who explains the context of some alleged rapes and that ‘they constantly threatened him that if he spoke, they would form a judicial committee…’” The court concluded that, when carefully examined, “these facts are not accurate and further affect the public consideration of the plaintiff since, on the one hand, there is no certain record of any conviction of the religious entity as a whole for the aforementioned unspecific cases of sexual abuse in Australia, so it is an inaccurate fact that the alleged events were concealed in that oceanic country. On the other hand, with respect to the specific accounts of alleged sexual abuse, it is not so much that the fact is true or not (in fact, no evidence of any convictions arising from such allegations, if any, has been provided), but that at all times the plural and collective number is used when referring to the alleged sexual abuse, to attribute to the religious denomination as a whole the responsibility for ‘sexual abuses perpetrated within the group’ rather than to the persons who in each case had caused the alleged abuses or sexual aggressions.” Overall, the part of the article concerning sexual abuse should be “classified as inaccurate.”
Third, the practice by the Jehovah’s Witnesses of the so-called ostracism or shunning, i.e., counseling members not to associate with ex-members who have been disfellowshipped or have publicly left the organization, is qualified in the article as sentencing these former members to “social death” and “a silent hell.” The court found the description of the practices by the Association of Victims of Jehovah’s Witnesses as based on “facts that are not clearly proved, since it is one thing to assert the right or freedom to choose to relate with a certain person inside or outside a certain religious confession, and another that, as indicated in the article, ‘when they are inside the cult they are explicitly or implicitly forced to relate only with other faithful’”—which is “inaccurate.”
Worse, the court reports, “the article expressly states that ‘there are double standards, because many elders are either adulterers or pedophiles,’” and that the Jehovah’s Witnesses “encourage physical and moral suicide.” These allegations, the court found, “once again lack a demonstrable objective basis,” and are “inaccurate and extremely damaging to the prestige of the plaintiff entity.”
In summary, the Association of Victims of Jehovah’s Witnesses was caught red-handed spreading false information, and “El Mundo” was caught red-handed uncritically reporting it. “It is not a question here of refuting or censuring opinions—explains the court—, but to legally sanction the erroneous or directly false facts that support such opinions.” The court also confirms that a media “is responsible for the content of what is disseminated”, including allegations made by third parties. “To admit otherwise— the court argues—would be as much as to legitimize any type of publication based on unquestionably false or untrue facts, just because it is a third party who maintains this erroneous view of the facts.”
It is not the first time that media fall into the trap of publishing slander fed to them by anti-cult organizations, “experts” on “cults” (in this case, the “expert” interviewed was Carlos Bardavío, i.e., the lawyer representing the Association of Victims of Jehovah’s Witnesses in another case), and “apostate” ex-members. It is also not the first time that a media outlet—even one that is a member of The Trust Project—refuses to publish a religious community’s reply to an insulting article. The decision should teach these media a lesson. However, it is unlikely this will happen. Some journalists are like the crow in Aesop’s fable, which kept being deceived by the fox and swearing that it had happened for the last time, only to be duped again at the next opportunity.