15 November 2000


Tenth Ibero-American Summit: press freedom violations common in Cuba and Colombia, outlook more hopeful in Peru

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(RSF/IFEX) - The following is an RSF press release:

15 november 2000

For immediate release

Tenth Ibero-American Summit

(Panama, 17 and 18 November 2000)

In Cuba and Colombia, violations of press freedom are commonplace. The outlook is more hopeful in Peru

In six other countries represented at the summit the media are facing serious threats

Frequent violations of press freedom have occurred during the past year in three of the 21 states taking part in the tenth Ibero-American summit meeting - Colombia, Cuba and Peru - although in Peru matters do seem to have taken a turn for the better. In six other countries - Chile, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay and Spain - press freedom has to cope with several serious threats such as terrorist violence, legislation that spells death to freedom and political repression. Statistics recorded by Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders - RSF) since the Havana summit in November 1999 speak volumes: five journalists killed, eight jailed, 42 arrested, 27 forced into exile, 125 assaulted or threatened, plus 136 cases of pressure or obstacles to the free flow of news. Although infringements of press freedom were not necessarily as serious in all ten countries, what their governments have in common is a failure to observe the "commitment to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms" declared every year as part of the summit's closing statement.

Colombia: News taken hostage

Nowadays the chief threat to the media no longer comes from drug traffickers but from armed groups such as the paramilitaries of the United Self-Defence Groups of Colombia (AUC) or guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). For them, journalists are not impartial observers of the conflict but "military targets", always suspected of supporting the "other side". Such groups are believed to be behind the murders of Luis Alberto Rincon, Alberto Sánchez Tovar and Pablo Emilio Medina, who were killed between 28 November and 3 December 1999.

The groups do not restrict themselves to murder to force journalists to practise self-censorship. On 25 May 2000 Jineth Bedoya of the daily El Espectador was kidnapped by the AUC after accusing several of its members of murdering inmates at a Bogota prison. She was gagged and tied up, then drugged and beaten, and finally left unconscious ten hours later about 60 miles from the Colombian capital. Her kidnappers said they wanted to "teach a lesson" to journalists who criticised their operations. Thirty-eight journalists have been kidnapped since 1998, usually by guerrillas hoping to force their employers to put out press releases or condemn atrocities committed by the army and paramilitaries.

Threats and attacks are also commonplace. According to a survey conducted by the University of La Sabana, published in February 2000, 42.5% of the journalists questioned had been threatened at some time during their careers. And the situation is getting worse: eight have gone into exile over the past year. They include Francisco Santos, the well-known editor of the daily El Tiempo, who left Bogota on 11 March after learning of a FARC plot to murder him. The group was apparently furious about his commitment to condemning kidnappings in Colombia (some 3,000 are estimated to have taken place in 1999 alone).

Cuba: The only country where journalists are in jail

Three journalists are still in prison in Cuba: Bernardo Arévalo Padron, founder of the independent news agency Línea Sur Press, sentenced to six years in November 1997 for "insulting" President Fidel Castro; Manuel Antonio González Castellanos, a member of the independent news agency Cuba Press, arrested on 1 October 1998 and sentenced to two years and seven months for insulting the president; and Jesús Joel Díaz Hernández, a member of the Cooperativa Ávileña de Periodistas Independientes, sentenced to four years in January 1999 because his work as a journalist was regarded as "a danger to society".

In Cuba, where the constitution stipulates that press freedom must "comply with the goals of socialist society", only official media are authorised. This control also extends to the Internet: access is restricted to a few hand-picked individuals. In these circumstances the 100 or so independent journalists employed by about 20 news agencies that are not recognised by the government are kept under pressure to persuade them to give up their work. Since the last summit, 26 have been threatened with prosecution, six have been attacked or threatened and 37 arrests have been recorded, not to mention the pressure put on members of their families, who may be thrown out of their homes, lose their jobs or be subjected to harassment by telephone. Since July Luis Alberto Rivera Leyva, who heads the news agency APLO, has been threatened, arrested or put under house arrest eight times. Nineteen journalists, at the end of their tethers, have chosen to go into exile since 1 January 2000, bringing to 40 the number that have left Cuba since 1995. Although law no. 88, adopted in March 1999, has not been brought into force, it still poses a threat to anyone who "collaborates with foreign media" or "supplies information" deemed liable to be useful to United States policy. The law provides for jail sentences of up to 20 years for offenders.

Despite the repression, the ranks of independent journalists have swollen from only a handful in the early 1990s to more than 100 today. The process has been helped by the growing number of web sites that enable their reports to be read all over the world and by the recognition they were given by the Ibero-American summit in Havana.

Peru: Has a turning point been reached?

In Peru the distancing of Vladimiro Montesinos, former head of the national intelligence department (Servicio de Inteligencia Nacional - SIN), from the government has opened the door to change. Negotiations between the government and the opposition under the auspices of the Organisation of American States (OAS) have already secured significant progress: reforms to the legal system, the dismantling of the intelligence department, and the restoring of Peruvian nationality to the majority shareholder of the television channel Frecuencia Latina. Although RSF regards these decisions as steps in the right direction, the organisation will remain on the alert to observe whether they are actually implemented.

On 3 November the Peruvian parliament approved the abolition of the Executive Legal Committees which gave the government the power to intervene in the running of the judiciary through a system of "temporary judges". In recent years the Peruvian courts had become a means of controlling news and punishing "troublesome" media. Yet the mandate of the temporary judges, who make up 70% of the total number of judges, has not been called into question despite doubts concerning the independence of some of them. In May 1999, two judges who had just ruled in favour of seven journalists known for their investigations of the SIN were replaced by two other judges who immediately cancelled their predecessors' decision.

At the end of September parliament voted to dismantle the SIN. The department, which had been run for ten years by Vladimiro Montesinos, was believed to be behind various incidents concerning media and journalists that had criticised the government, the army or the SIN: phone-tapping, death threats, assaults, threatened legal proceedings, defamation campaigns in the tabloid press, and so on. One of the SIN's victims was Cecilia Valenzuela, editor of the online news agency imediaperu.com, who was attacked and followed for several days in early September after she published a series of articles accusing the department of involvement in a drugs and weapons trafficking scandal. The military intelligence department (Servicio de Inteligencia del Ejército - SIE), also believed to be responsible for some of the harassment of journalists, is still in operation. RSF condemned the absence of an official inquiry into the SIN's and the SIE's responsibility in attacks on the media.

On 8 November 2000 the decree depriving Baruch Ivcher, a businessman of Israeli origin and majority shareholder in the TV channel Frecuencia Latina, of his Peruvian nationality was cancelled. It had been signed in July 1997, shortly after the channel broadcast a report accusing the SIN of involvement in a phone-tapping scandal. The decision meant that Ivcher lost control of Frecuencia Latina because of a law that bans foreigners from owning media. The most recent decision did not, however, give him back his control of the channel. The Inter-American Human Rights Commission has called for the channel to be restored to him, as it did in the case of Genaro Delgado Parker, director of the channel Red Global, who was deprived of control after he claimed that blackmail over advertising was enabling the government to dictate the content of television newscasts.

Chile, Panama and Paraguay: State versus media

In Panama, which is hosting the latest summit, Chile and Paraguay, it is the state itself which poses the greatest threat to the media. In Panama and Chile laws left over from the days of dictatorship still provide for prison sentences as punishment for press offences. In Paraguay, the media bear the brunt of political instability.

Carlos Singares, managing editor of the Panamanian daily El Siglo, was jailed for a week at the end of July on the orders of the attorney-general because the official felt that a report published by the daily was "insulting to his dignity, honour and rank". In Panama, article 33 of the constitution, articles 173A, 175, 307 and 308 of the penal code and articles 202 and 386 of the criminal code still provide for prison sentences in cases involving the press. About 40 journalists are currently facing prosecution. The imprisonment of Carlos Singares dashed hopes raised at the end of November 1999, when laws 11 and 68 were repealed. Known as the "gagging laws", they allowed newspapers to be closed down and heavily fined if found guilty of offences.

Chile's state security law, under which 17 journalists have been arrested and charged since 1990, is still in force. One of the journalists is still living in exile. The law, passed in 1958, provides for sentences of up to five years in jail for "insulting or libelling" high-ranking state officials. On 15 February 2000 José Ale was sentenced to be "placed under legal supervision" for 18 months for "insulting" Servando Jordan, the former chairman of the supreme court, before being pardoned by Ricardo Lagos on 6 July.

In Paraguay political strife puts press freedom in continual danger. After an attempted coup d'état on 18 May 2000, a two-week state of emergency was declared during which three journalists were imprisoned, another was threatened with arrest and two radio stations were closed down. Three months later, during the election of the vice-president, the staff of the Ñanduti and Radio Primero de Marzo received threats and were even assaulted over their coverage of the poll.

Spain, Guatemala and Mexico: The press are victims of violence

In Spain the state of press freedom is suffering because of the Basque separatist issue. The murder on 7 May 2000 of José Luis Lopez de Lacalle, columnist of the Basque regional edition of the daily El Mundo and a member of the editorial board, came after a period of threats, warnings and the publication of blacklists, and was one of a series of attacks on the media and journalists. The attacks were usually blamed on the armed independence movement Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA) which, in a statement published in February 1999, described journalists who opposed "the building of Euskal Herria" (the Basque homeland) as "enemy dogs". And the violence is continuing: four newspaper offices have been the target of attacks since May and two journalists have narrowly escaped attempts on their lives. About 100 journalists now have official or private protection. To condemn the situation, RSF has given its annual award this year to Carmen Gurruchaga of the daily El Mundo, who has been a victim of terrorist violence on several occasions.

Acts of intimidation and threats against human rights campaigners and journalists have been on the increase in Guatemala since the Guatemalan Republican Front returned to power at the end of 1999. At least six journalists were threatened as they were investigating certain military officials. Meanwhile on 27 April Roberto Martínez, a photographer with the daily Prensa Libre, was killed while covering riots in Guatemala City. He was shot and fatally wounded by a security guard at a shopping centre that was being looted by demonstrators.

In Mexico violence and pressure on the media are mainly political. Five journalists have been threatened or attacked. They include Jaime Avilés of the daily La Jornada who received a threatening email message on 21 October after he accused the governor of Tabasco state, Roberto Madrazo, of involvement in a corruption scandal. In addition, two reporters were killed in states bordering on the United States, where trafficking of all kinds is rife. It is not known if the murders were connected with their work as journalists.


RSF calls on the governments of Colombia and Spain to continue their efforts to identify those who have murdered journalists, and to guarantee the safety of all those working in the profession.

RSF calls on the Cuban authorities to release the three journalists currently in jail immediately, to allow press freedom to exist without restrictions, to recognise independent news agencies and to put an end to harassment and attempts to intimidate independent journalists. We also call on the Cuban authorities to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

RSF calls on the Peruvian government to order an inquiry into the responsibility of the SIN and the SIE in the pressure brought to bear on several media and journalists in recent years. We also ask for Baruch Ivcher and Genaro Delgado Parker to be given back control of their television channels, in accordance with the resolutions of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.

RSF calls on the Panamanian and Chilean authorities to abolish prison sentences as punishment for offences involving the media, and to abolish the crimes of "insulting" and "attacking the honour" of state officials. We remind the governments of those countries that in a document dated 18 January 2000, the United Nations' special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression stated that "imprisonment as punishment for the peaceful expression of an opinion constitutes a serious violation of human rights". Moreover, in its Declaration on the Principles of Freedom of Expression adopted in October 2000, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission says it regards the laws on "insulting" civil servants as "damaging to press freedom".

RSF calls on the governments of Guatemala, Mexico and Paraguay to investigate cases of attacks and threats against journalists and to take steps to ensure their safety. We also ask the authorities in Paraguay to respect press freedom in all circumstances.


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