Matus, Alejandra

Alejandra Matus

Award-winning Chilean journalist Alejandra Matus won instant notoriety with her devastating exposé of corruption, "El libro negro de la justicia chilena" ("The Black Book of Chilean Justice"), which was banned in Chile. To avoid arrest, she fled to Miami, where she now lives in exile. After the US government granted her political asylum, she managed to defy her government's ban by making her book freely available on the Internet. She now works tirelessly to champion the cause of press freedom.

The eldest of three children, Matus' life changed irrevocably at the age of seven. That year, her parents separated and a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the government of Salvador Allende. At the age of 17, Matus attended the Pontifical Catholic University of Santiago.

Her journalistic career, which began with the opposition magazine Today during her college years, took her to Radio New World, for whom she covered Chile's ongoing transition to democracy. At the daily newspaper, La Época, she gained recognition for her investigation into the "Charly Case", the first case of espionage in the army under the democratically-elected government of Patricio Aylwin.

In 1994, Matus uncovered corruption in the Military Hospital of Santiago and made the front page of La Época. But after the article was published, the army charged the newspaper with sedition, giving the paper no choice but to retract her article. This was her first encounter with censorship. Four years later, her article was vindicated when the generals she had named were prosecuted for corruption. But she resigned from La Época and began writing for La Nación.

In partnership with journalist Francisco Artaza, she wrote an investigative report on the 1976 Washington car-bomb assassinations of Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier and his American assistant Ronni Moffit. Matus and Artaza were awarded the Ortega and Gasset Prize for their work, which then led to the publication of "Crime with Punishment", Matus' first journalistic book.

Matus' steady rise to prominence in her field culminated in "The Black Book of Chilean Justice". While working at La Nación and the daily La Tercera, she accumulated startling evidence of rampant corruption in the judiciary. She drew up a "history" of corruption in the legal arm of the government. "There has never been a truly independent judiciary in Chile, just a 'service' with no independence," she says. "This service's deference to the authorities of the military government's regime tragically resulted in its failure to protect the lives of hundreds of people."

The six-year research project exposed a number of judges, disclosing corruption, miscarriage of justice and unsavoury behaviour, dating from the military regime to the current government. One of them, Judge Servando Jordán, brought legal action against her and her book.

In April 1999, Matus returned from Miami, where she was a journalist in residence for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, to attend the official launch of her book in Chile. The day after the book reached the stores, the police started confiscating all copies from bookstores throughout the country.

Justice Jordán invoked an archaic but still valid national security law authorising him to ban the book, seize all copies and bring criminal action against Matus and her publisher.

Matus' brother, a lawyer, telephoned her to warn her of the arrest warrant and urge her to leave Chile, or face up to five years in prison. Matus boarded a plane to Buenos Aires with her fiancé and in spite of massive protests at home and abroad, she was forced to return to Miami. There, she was declared to be in contempt of court in Chile, and liable to immediate imprisonment if she returned. The United Statess granted Matus political asylum on October 2, 1999, making her the first Chilean to obtain asylum in the US since the end of the Pinochet regime.

Human Rights Watch has honoured Matus with its Hellman-Hammet Award for persecuted writers.