Last Updated: Friday, 16 February 2018, 15:01 GMT

Latin America: Banding Together

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Author Joel Simon
Publication Date February 1999
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Latin America: Banding Together, February 1999, available at: [accessed 19 February 2018]
Comments This report was included as a Special Report in CPJ's "Attacks on the Press in 1998".
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.

By Joel Simon

After he broke a series of stories in March about corruption in the Peruvian military, Angel Páez was in the news every day. His notoriety stemmed not from his bylines, which ran in La República, the Lima-based daily where Páez works as an investigative reporter, but from the headlines that ran in Lima's sensationalist tabloids, calling Páez a traitor, a terrorist, and a secret agent of the Ecuadoran army.

"I felt terrified," said Páez, who feared the tabloid attacks were a prelude to a possible arrest or assassination attempt. "I changed my address. I stopped writing stories for a time." He believed the articles were part of a government-orchestrated campaign coordinated by Peru's shadowy National Intelligence Service (SIN) and carried out in reprisal for his reporting. Páez had recently broken a major story on a military deserter, Luisa Zanatta, who had overseen the systematic phone-tapping of journalists and government opponents for the Army intelligence service, a division of the SIN. What infuriated the government was that Páez's stories were published not only in Peru, but the Argentine daily Clarín, for which Páez was a correspondent. Clarín is the world's largest-circulation Spanish-language daily, and Páez's stories took a heavy toll on Peru's international image.

Initially, Páez considered suing the tabloids for libel, but soon realized that this approach might backfire. Libel is a criminal offense in Peru; if Páez had won the case and the tabloid editors went to jail, Peruvian journalists would have little moral authority the next time the government threw an investigative journalist in jail for breaking a corruption story. After discussing the situation with Ricardo Uceda, a member of the board of a Peruvian press freedom group called the Instituto de Prensa y Sociedad (Institute of Press and Society), Páez decided to fight back using his formidable skills as a journalist: He would investigate the source of the tabloid articles, while Uceda would organize a delegation of international press organizations to Peru to ratchet up the pressure on President Alberto K. Fujimori.

Since taking office in 1990, Fujimori has used a massive spy network to consolidate his hold on power. Journalists have undergone special scrutiny: Their phones have been tapped, their movements followed. Reporters have been detained and questioned on trumped-up terrorism and tax charges; they have been kidnapped and threatened by members of the SIN. For most of that time, the Peruvian press has been too divided and besieged to effectively fight back. But the campaign against Páez seemed to galvanize the press into action.

From the outset, evidence of government involvement in the tabloid campaign was overwhelming. One of the papers, El Tío, hit the stands only two weeks before the attacks began and seemed to have been created to smear Páez and the handful of independent journalists in Peru. All four tabloids conducting the smear campaign sold for pennies and were loaded with government advertising. Often, all four published the identical story with the same headline on the same day. In May, Páez unearthed a document that proved to be a smoking gun: a copy of a fax sent to El Tío by Augusto Bresani, a political consultant working for the army high command. The fax contained a defamatory text attacking Páez. It was published verbatim as a news story in El Tío the following day.

As Páez was collecting evidence, IPYS was organizing the international delegation. "We decided we needed to find a way to show the government that there was a tangible international concern for press freedom in Peru," notes Jorge Salazar, the executive director of IPYS. "In other words, that we are not alone."

From June 22 to 26, IPYS hosted representatives of international press freedom organizations including CPJ, Reporters Sans Frontières, Periodistas (an Argentine press group), and the Freedom Forum. They met with editors, members of Congress, the Attorney General, and the head of the government human rights office. In an hour-and-a-half meeting with Fujimori, members of the delegation questioned the president on a wide variety of press freedom issues. The visit received extensive coverage in Peru. The attacks against Páez and other Peruvian journalists were widely reported internationally, including in The New York Times.

Fujimori got the message. Almost immediately after the group's visit, the tabloid campaign against Páez ceased. In subsequent months, conditions for Peruvian journalists improved markedly. The IPYS-led campaign in Peru was a clear demonstration that when journalists are united in protesting abuses against the press – and willing to cover attacks against their colleagues even when they come from rival publications – leaders are forced to heed. Increasingly, this strategy is being employed throughout the hemisphere. National press freedom groups now exist in Peru, Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Guatemala, and Mexico, while journalists unions in Paraguay and Ecuador have taken an active role in documenting and protesting abuses.

The rise of press freedom organizations in Latin America owes much to the growing power of the media throughout the hemisphere. Journalists, long tamed by systematic government persecution under the dictatorships, now routinely report on corruption, malfeasance, and human rights abuses. By doing so, the press has helped to create an incipient culture of accountability and gained widespread public trust.

But while overt censorship has disappeared from every country in Latin America but Cuba, the new style of aggressive reporting has all too frequently evoked a violent response from those who are the subjects of scrutiny. In the last decade, 117 journalists have been murdered in Latin America. Generally, the murders take place in countries where judicial institutions remain weak or corrupt; nearly all crimes go unpunished. In this environment, the only way to achieve justice is to use the press to bring political pressure on the government to take action. By covering attacks against their colleagues, journalists have made press freedom an issue of public concern. Nowhere has this strategy been more effective than in Argentina, where the press united to protest the brutal murder of photojournalist José Luis Cabezas.

In the early morning of January 25, 1997, a fisherman in the resort town of Pinamar found Cabezas' body in a burnt-out car on the side of a dirt road. Journalist Horacio Verbitsky was at home in Buenos Aires when he got the news later that morning. Even though Verbitsky had never met Cabezas, he grasped immediately that what was in the balance was the country's resolve to end the silence that had fueled the earlier brutality, and to defend a basic principle that had been at the core of the military's repressive campaign: the right to speak, to listen, and to know.

In the year before Cabezas' murder, Verbitsky, one of the country's top investigative reporters, had helped to coalesce a group of journalists in Argentina committed to defending press freedom. In 1996, after Argentine president Carlos Saúl Menem had tried to force a series of restrictive press laws through Congress, Verbitsky called his colleagues and urged them to mount a unified front. The idea was to bring together a small but diverse group of prominent and respected journalists who could speak out with moral authority on the issue of press freedom. The new organization was dubbed simply "Periodistas" (Journalists); Verbitsky's goal in assembling the board was to break the ideological polarization that had characterized every aspect of Argentine life for half a century. Verbitsky – who had participated in the urban guerrilla movement against the dictatorship until 1976 – joined forces with television reporter and talk show host Mariano Grondona, who had supported the junta, and Rosendo Fraga, who had worked in the military government of General Roberto Eduardo Viola.

Within a few hours of the Cabezas murder, Periodistas had sent out a press release condemning the killing and demanding an investigation. "Our press release established in the initial moments of confusion that this was an extremely serious case and shaped the coverage in the first days after the attack," said Verbitsky.

Along with Argentina's powerful and well-organized journalists unions, members of Periodistas participated over the next weeks in street protests in Buenos Aires that drew thousands of people, both journalists and non-journalists. Posters of Cabezas, with the slogan "We will not forget!" began to appear all over the city. There were low-speed caravans from Buenos Aires to the site of the murder in Pinamar; eerie moments of silence before soccer matches; and massive coverage of the murder in the newspapers, on the afternoon radio talk shows, and on the nightly news.

"For years, under the dictatorship, it was impossible to react when this kind of thing occurred," Verbitsky noted. "And after the dictatorship ended, there were years of calm, where there weren't any murders, a time when the social wounds could be healed and people learned once again to live in peace. The murder of Cabezas brutally shattered this perspective, and showed that the risk is still under the surface. At the same time, people were reacting to the growing series of attacks on the press – the restrictive laws, the threats, and the previous physical attacks. It's the combination of both these factors that produced such a powerful reaction."

In Mexico, as well, where a new press freedom group, the Sociedad de Periodistas (the Society of Journalists) was formed in 1998, it was a single violent attack that drove home the need for organization. In November 1997, editor Jesús Blancornelas, of the Tijuana weekly Zeta, was ambushed and nearly killed by gunmen from the Tijuana drug cartel (Blancornelas' bodyguard was killed in the attack).

Just a few weeks prior to the assassination attempt, Blancornelas had attended a workshop in Mexico City sponsored by CPJ. He spoke about the threats made against his life since he had begun publishing stories about the Arellano Félix brothers, who control the drug trade in Tijuana. At the Mexico City meeting, Blancornelas was elected to an eight-person commission charged with evaluating the risks facing the press and developing a self-defense strategy. The near-fatal attack against him delayed the project, but also infused it with greater urgency. In February, the Mexican commission met in Tijuana to affirm its support for Blancornelas and proceed with the new group, which was legally registered in the summer of 1998.

While press freedom groups have become powerful advocates for beleaguered journalists in their respective countries, their effectiveness is often enhanced by the fact that they share information with international groups through an Internet-based network known as the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, or IFEX. Administered by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression in Toronto, the IFEX network includes more than three dozen press groups, including five from Latin America. A local group can post an alert about a press freedom violation on the IFEX network, thereby generating an instant letter-writing campaign from press groups around the world. Such coordinated responses have forced recalcitrant governments to take quick action. Along with CPJ, the Miami-based Inter American Press Association and the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontières are the most active groups in Latin America.

This sharing of information and coordinated advocacy has helped put press freedom on the international agenda throughout the region. When President Clinton visited Argentina in October 1997, the national and international outcry over the Cabezas murder had become so great that Clinton felt compelled to express his concern to President Menem in both public statements and private discussions.

Buoyed by the strong public reaction to his statements in Argentina, Clinton also proposed that the Organization of American States (OAS) take a more active role in protecting press freedom in Latin America. After discussions with press groups in the United States and Latin America, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the OAS created the post of Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, responsible for ensuring that provisions of inter-American law protecting freedom of expression are respected by member states. The creation of the new position was unanimously endorsed by the heads of state attending April's Summit of the Americas in Santiago, Chile. In November, Santiago Canton was named Special Rapporteur. He immediately began a fact-finding tour of Latin America.

Despite the considerable success of the new Latin American press groups, many difficulties remain. In Mexico, the Society of Journalists has been struggling to secure funding and establish an official presence. In Colombia, the Foundation for a Free Press, a group formed in February 1996, has had some success in developing a network for alerting the press about attacks against journalists. But foundation director Ignacio Gómez notes that the public has become so desensitized to violence in Colombia that it is difficult to elicit any public response to violent attacks against the press. "People in Colombia see it as entirely normal when a journalist is killed," says Gómez. Four journalists were killed in Colombia in 1998, more than in any other country. This brings the 10-year toll of murdered journalists to 43 – second only to Algeria.

In Argentina, Periodistas appears to be of a victim of its own success. The group's ability to thoroughly document and generate coverage for every attack or threat against the press seems to have substantially reduced the physical risk for journalists. In a country where few criminal investigations result in prosecutions, public pressure to solve Cabezas' murder compelled authorities to pursue the case. In May, Alfredo Yabrán, the reclusive businessman accused of ordering the murder after the photographer published his photo, committed suicide as the police closed in. "Anyone who thought they could silence the press by killing a journalist is going to think twice," noted Verbitsky.

But as the physical risk for journalists has diminished in Argentina, there have been discussions within Periodistas about the group's mandate. Many journalists now feel that the greatest threat to press freedom is not violence, but the concentration of media ownership and the subtle government pressure against media owners. The question the group must answer, according to Verbitsky, is whether to maintain its original, narrower mandate as a press freedom organization that seeks to protect the physical integrity of journalists, or to broaden its focus and become a "media watchdog group" concerned with issues of fairness and accuracy.

Even in Peru, where IPYS has solidified its base of support by hosting the press freedom delegation in June, serious obstacles remain. As in the rest of Latin America, there are deep divisions within the press – some ideological, and some based on the inevitable competition in a country with only a handful of well-paying journalism jobs.

But the work of press freedom groups remains crucial, precisely because of the dearth of other strong institutions in the region's emerging democracies. While enormous financial investments and strong political will are needed to create an independent judiciary or truly competitive political parties, a free press requires no financial investment or direct government support. All that is needed is for the government to allow journalists to work without fear of reprisal.

In Peru, for example, the press is the only independent institution. Fujimori has packed the supreme court with supporters and used espionage as much as overt political repression to gain the upper hand on his political opponents. For example, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, who ran against Fujimori for president in 1995, often wondered how Fujimori seemed to know exactly what he was going to say and where he was going to campaign. Two years later, a Lima television station reported that Peruvian intelligence agents had been listening in on every phone call that Pérez de Cuéllar made. "What is painful is that they invaded not only my political life, but my private life," complained the former U.N. Secretary General. "It's as if a thief entered our house and stole our sensibilities."

Journalists, meanwhile, have uncovered compelling evidence of a systematic campaign orchestrated by the SIN to intimidate and control the independent press. In 1997, Baruch Ivcher, the majority shareholder of TV station Frecuencia Latina, was stripped of his Peruvian citizenship and forced to return to his native Israel after the station broke stories about military corruption, wire-tapping campaigns, and the personal financial dealing of SIN adviser Vladimiro Montesinos. When Ivcher tried to mount a legal defense, he was hit with tax-evasion charges, his wife and daughter faced legal harassment, and Peru requested that an international arrest warrant be issued through Interpol. Investigative reporter José Arrieta, who broke many of the stories at Frecuencia Latina, was forced into exile in January 1998 and granted political asylum in the United States in July. César Hildebrandt, Peru's leading television journalist, was accused of treason after reporting on negotiations toward an eventual peace treaty with neighboring Ecuador; Cecilia Valenzuela, another top television reporter, had her critical program canceled. And while the attacks against Angel Páez subsided in the wake of the June visit by the press freedom delegation, they heated up again in September after Páez began reporting on the delicate peace negotiations with Ecuador.

This time, Páez says, the Peruvian government went high tech. In the last year, Páez , along with other journalists inside and outside Peru, had developed an electronic network using e-mail to share information and coordinate investigations. By the summer, the journalists were hit with computer virus attacks and forged e-mail messages designed to create confusion and sow discord. In November, Páez discovered a website created by the so-called Association in Defense of Truth. Dressed up as a civic organization, the website's primary intention seemed to be to post defamatory and false information about journalists and government opponents (all the articles about Páez that ran in El Tío were on the site).

Spearheaded by Fernando Yovera, a Peruvian reporter who works for the Telemundo television network in Miami, the group of journalists launched a joint investigation of the site. They soon found that it was registered to in the name of Blanca Rivera with an address in Miami. A reverse telephone search of the address, however, showed that the telephone was registered to someone named Guadelupe Wong. Among Peruvian soldiers trained at the School of the Americas in Georgia was an officer named Carlos Rivera Wong. Wong's father's surname was Guadelupe; his mother's was Blanca Rivera. Could Blanca Rivera really be Carlos Rivera Wong? "He worked in military intelligence," Páez points out.

"With the destruction of the civil and judicial institutions, and the virtual disappearance of political parties, the independent press has acquired a primary role in defense of democracy," notes Salazar of IPYS. "It is the press that denounces abuses and keeps the public informed, not the politicians or the judicial institutions which are subordinated to politics."

In other words, if journalists in Latin America want to achieve justice for their colleagues who have been attacked or killed, journalism is their primary weapon. It is only by overcoming traditional rivalries, and organizing to investigate and denounce attacks, that the press can create an environment in which it is able to carry out its work. But as the Peru example also shows, it is not just journalists but all of society which benefits from press freedom. This is because throughout Latin America the development of democratic institutions has been slow and uneven. In most countries, the press remains the only institution widely available to the public, and broadly responsive to its concerns.

Joel Simon worked as a Mexico-based associate editor for Pacific News Service before joining CPJ in 1997. He is author of Endangered Mexico: An Environment on the Edge (Sierra Club Books, 1997) and is a frequent contributor to the Columbia Journalism Review.

Copyright notice: © Committee to Protect Journalists. All rights reserved. Articles may be reproduced only with permission from CPJ.

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