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Colombian town’s anti-gossip law has tongues wagging

Times Staff Writer

Mayor Juan Guillermo Angel got tired of the gossip swirling around this farm town that has been famous for rumormongering for nearly three centuries. So he outlawed it.

Or did he?

“An anti-gossip law? That’s just gossip,” said Angel, who prefers to describe it as an anti-slander ordinance.

Semantics aside, at his urging the town council passed a law this year that imposes fines of up to $1,100 or two months in jail for anyone spreading “calumny that injures or dishonors.”

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The law is permitted by Colombia’s penal code, but only four of the country’s 1,119 municipalities have enacted one like it, police officials say, because of freedom-of-expression concerns and the difficulty of defining the crime.

Angel says the law is part of his campaign to improve Tulua’s quality of life. The city simultaneously adopted measures to bolster pedestrian rights, care for senior citizens, facilitate conflict resolution and create stricter control over public spaces, he said in an interview.

But some observers contend that the law is a heavy-handed effort to muzzle the mayor’s critics, particularly former Mayor Gustavo Alvarez Gardeazabal, who regularly pokes fun at politicians, including Angel, on his nationally broadcast radio show, “The Firefly.”

“It’s an attack on free expression more or less designed to shut me up,” Gardeazabal said. The mayor, he said, was nettled by Gardeazabal’s broadcast insinuations of ballot box irregularities when he was elected in 2003 and ever since by allegations of his administration’s mishandling of public transit and of the proceeds from the sale of the municipal television station.

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Gardeazabal’s complaint is bolstered by the fact that on the day the law took effect, he was hauled before a prosecutor in Tulua to answer slander charges lodged by a “city functionary.” He pleaded not guilty, saying he had been misquoted in an interview. The case is pending.

Angel responds that Gardeazabal is “paranoid. . . . The law was an official, not a personal, decision.”

Observers expect the law to have little effect on gossip in a town that has loved its tittle-tattle for centuries.

“We have a reputation as gossipmongers,” said Omar Franco Duque, a local historian and professor at Central Cauca Valley University here. “It’s our custom and it’s not going to disappear easily, because it’s a way of life.”

Books have been written about the town’s oral tradition and the roving poet minstrels called juglares who traveled around Tulua and outlying towns, reciting poems filled with gossip, after Spaniards founded the town in 1719. The poems were roughly analogous to the corridos sung by Mexican norteno bands that, for a fee, glorify in song sports heroes, drug traffickers and politicians.

Local gossip at times has morphed into literature resembling the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez novels, said Hugo Bolivar Hinojosa, a historian at Central Cauca Valley University.

He said the most famous case was that of a bandit named Joaquin Martinez. In 1889, a firing squad twice tried to execute him but failed after firing several volleys -- or so the local lore goes. Only after the priest removed a medallion of the Virgin Mary did the rifle shots penetrate the bandit’s body.

“Lies are spoken of as if they are the truth,” Bolivar said. “People take the truth and add to it, not always in a positive way.”

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Some supporters of the law insist that malicious gossip has brought death and dishonor to the town and that the line drawn by Mayor Angel was needed.

Gossip has indeed had tragic consequences in Tulua. In an early 1990s case reminiscent of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” a Colombian air force major named Jorge Lopez Quintero killed his wife after hearing that she was having an affair. A close friend turned out to be the source of the rumor, Bolivar said. The major was released after two years in prison but was killed a short time later by an unknown assailant, Bolivar said.

Antonio Gomez, a bus fleet owner, said the town needed the new restrictions: “Gossip doesn’t just bother people -- it leads to conflicts. This might help.”

But most gossip is harmless, an expression of Tuluans’ desire to embellish on the truth to, as Duque put it, “be the first to know something, to twist things like a novelist to satisfy the reader and then pass it on, like ant to ant.”

“But it’s an obsession that produces mistakes,” Duque said.

This city is by nature information-hungry: There are seven newspapers, five radio stations and three TV stations to serve a population of 180,000.

Then there are also regular anonymous gossip sheets slid under doorways with the latest dish, like the one called “The Wasp” that appeared late last month that raised questions about the city’s finances and the mayor’s decision to ban all motorcycles and cars from city streets for one day to show the benefits of reduced noise and air pollution.

Here in a conflict zone thick with guerrillas and paramilitary fighters, citizens say they are forced to resort to whispered gossip more than ever: Speaking out publicly on political issues could mean a death sentence from armed groups that don’t often appreciate public airing of community issues when their political or financial interests are at stake.

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But many locals either don’t know about the law or don’t understand what constitutes criminal gossip. Local police inspector Alain Granada Gutierrez described an infraction of the law as “any commentary that damages the moral integrity or the good name of a citizen.”

Still, the city is holding a series of public meetings to instruct citizens on the finer points of gossip. At one such meeting last month at the municipal House of Justice, a woman who identified herself only as Olga said gossip had affected even her barrio’s communal vegetable garden. Rumors that vegetable seeds had been misappropriated got back to City Hall, and furious politicians almost withdrew permission for the barrio to use the public plot.

Asked about the city’s status as a center of gossip, Mayor Angel said, “It’s an anti-asset. The responsibility of any city is to promote values like solidarity, honesty and respect.”

After being brought before the prosecutor, Gardeazabal was advised by lawyers for the Caracol radio network to broadcast his show from a neighboring town to avoid breaking the anti-gossip law. “I think it demonstrates that the climate here is not easy,” said Gardeazabal, who continues to broadcast his satirical show from Riofrio, where he owns a ranch.

Col. Ricardo Alberto Restrepo, who commands the national police in the state of Cauca Valley, said the anti-gossip law was legitimate because the community council approved it. But he appeared to question its value.

“What you can debate is, what benefit does one of these laws bring? Is it benefiting one individual at the expense of the community?”

chris.kraul@latimes.com


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