Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 July 2014, 07:28 GMT

Press freedom cases highlight environmental coverage taboo

Publisher Reporters Without Borders
Publication Date 17 May 2011
Cite as Reporters Without Borders, Press freedom cases highlight environmental coverage taboo, 17 May 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4dd5fa322.html [accessed 30 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Photographer Marcela Rodríguez's arrest while covering a protest against a major hydroelectric project on 13 May and a government agency's refusal to fund distribution of filmmaker Elena Varela's documentary about the Mapuche people's land dispute with the authorities have revived concern about a tendency to suppress coverage of environmental issues in Chile.

A contributor to the Mapuexpress website, Rodríguez, 29, was arrested when police used force to disperse demonstrators within five minutes of their starting to stage a protest in the southern city of Temuco against plans to build five hydro-electric dams in Patagonia. The so-called Hydroaysén project's imminent approval has sparked a massive wave of protests in Chile.

The staff of Mapuexpress told Reporters Without Borders that Rodríguez was mistreated by the police. According to Radio Bío Bío, she and 10 other people are due to appear in court on 22 June on charges of public disorder. Prosecutors want each of them sentenced to 300 days in prison, plus a fine if they refuse to admit their responsibility.

"We hope that, at the trial, the police will explain their behaviour during Marcela Rodríguez's arrest and their violation of the constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms of assembly and information," Reporters Without Borders said. "Thirty thousand people demonstrated in Santiago. Why was a much smaller demonstration – and its coverage – so quickly suppressed in Temuco?

"The dispute over the Hydraysén project compounds the already serious land conflict between the authorities and the Mapuche indigenous communities in the south. Rodríguez's fate takes on an additional importance as her case has coincided with a disturbing new development in the case of documentary filmmaker Elena Varela."

Varela was arrested on a criminal association charge in 2008 while shooting her documentary "Newen Mapuche" about the Mapuche people in the southern region of Araucania and their disputes with the government. It was not until 22 April 2010 that she was finally acquitted.

The many questionable aspects of the case against Varela suggested that it was an attempt to censor her film. Two foreign documentary film crews that came to cover the issue of the Mapuche in Araucania were deported from Chile at around the same time.

Varela's film is ready for distribution and has already begun being screened in festivals in Chile and other countries. But CORFO (Corporación de Fomento de la Producción), a state agency that promotes production, told Varela in a 13 April letter that it was refusing her request for assistance with the film's national and international distribution on the grounds that it "would harm the country's image."

"This is clearly a case of political censorship," the Association of Chilean Documentary Makers (ADOC) said in a 12 May letter to CORFO executive vice-president Hernán Cheyre and culture minister Luciano Cruz-Coke. Varela had previously filed an appeal with the culture ministry, which did not keep its promise to reply by 11 May.

"Our assessment of this case is similar to that of ADOC's filmmakers." Reporters Without Borders said. "The reason given by CORFO for refusing to help distribute ‘Newen Mapuche' even seems to confirm that Varela was arrested in 2008 for making a film about a subject the government would rather forget. It is also absurd, inasmuch as screenings have already begun.

"The refusal to support this film confirms the continuing existence of a taboo in Chile that it is time to end. Varela's documentary raises an issue of real public interest both nationally and internationally. For the sake of a public debate and for the sake of freedom of expression and information, ‘Newen Mapuche' should receive normal distribution."

Also read the Reporters Without Borders report "Deforestation and pollution, high-risk subjects".

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