On October 16, 2023, in a report by Massimo Introvigne for BitterWinter.org, an important legal case involving the Spanish Jehovah’s Witnesses and the newspaper “El Mundo” is highlighted.
The lawsuit centers on an article that was published by “El Mundo” on November 21, 2022. The article relied on information provided by the Association of Victims of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, an organization opposed to the group.
On October 2, the Court of First Instance no. 1 of Torrejón de Ardoz, Spain, made a decision in favor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (Ruling 287/2023). It has ordered “El Mundo” to publish a right of response, from the religious group. The court recognized that the newspaper had uncritically accepted and spread information from a dissatisfied former association of Witnesses.
Additionally, the court dismissed the newspaper’s argument that the Association of Victims of Jehovah’s Witnesses held sole responsibility for the content of the article and mandated that “El Mundo” cover the litigation expenses.
Importantly the court’s ruling extended beyond granting the Jehovah’s Witnesses the right to respond. It also carefully examined the accuracy of the allegations made by the Association of Victims of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The court determined that these allegations had the potential to damage the reputation of the organization and found that, in many cases, they were not entirely accurate.
The court emphasized that the article’s title, which included the term ‘cult’ (‘secta’ in Spanish), carried negative connotations for any religion. The court found that the claims originating from the Association of Victims of Jehovah’s Witnesses, such as labeling the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a ‘cult’ with ‘cultic practices,’ alleging that it leads to ‘social death,’ and asserting that it ‘compels’ members not to report crimes, all caused undeniable harm to the religious association.
Furthermore, the court examined the accuracy of the allegations in the article. It pointed out that referring to the Jehovah’s Christian Witnesses as a ‘cult’ was legally erroneous, as the organization was a registered religious denomination in Spain, like many others. The court also found inaccuracies in the article’s references to alleged sexual abuse within the religious group.
The court expressed that there was no definitive record of any conviction against the religious entity as a whole in connection with sexual abuse allegations, making such claims inaccurate. Additionally, the court noted that the article inappropriately assigned collective responsibility to the religious denomination for alleged sexual abuses rather than focusing on individual cases.
The court also addressed allegations concerning the practice of ostracism or shunning by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It found that the description of these practices by the Association of Victims of Jehovah’s Witnesses was not convincingly substantiated. The court ruled that the claim that members are forced to associate only with other faithful members was inaccurate.
The court also dismissed the assertions made in the article regarding the Jehovah’s Witnesses having ‘double standards and a significant number of their elders being ‘adulterers or pedophiles.’ It found these allegations to be without any foundation and deemed them as highly detrimental, to the reputation of the religious organization.
In conclusion, the court’s decision exposed the dissemination of false information by the Association of Victims of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the uncritical reporting of these claims by “El Mundo.” The court emphasized the importance of legally sanctioning erroneous or false facts supporting opinions, rather than merely refuting or censoring opinions.
Moreover, the court emphasized that media outlets have a responsibility for the content they share even if it is based on allegations from parties. This ruling reinforces the importance for media organizations to verify the accuracy of information before publishing it and to distinguish between reporting and personal opinions.
This case is a warning to media organizations regarding the dissemination of information from self-proclaimed “cult experts” (in this instance, Carlos Bardavio (RedUNE-FECRIS), who is often presented as “the greatest expert on cults in Spain” for propagandistic purposes) and former members who have distanced themselves from their faith. It also emphasizes the importance of respecting a community’s right to respond to defamatory articles.
This legal victory stands as a reminder to media outlets to uphold their responsibility to ensure accuracy and fairness in their reporting.
As Introvigne wrote himself: