Echoes of D.C.’s Pundit Payola — in Peru

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

If former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori is following the U.S. “pundit payola” scandal while he cools his heels in Chile fighting off extradition, he’s probably chuckling at how pitifully small this scandal is compared to what he pulled off during his reign from 1990 to 2000.

For contracts that never reached even six figures, U.S. government agencies and lobbyists were able to rent favorable press from the likes of former Copley News Service columnist Doug Bandow and Armstrong Williams, late of Tribune Media Services.

But Fujimori controlled whole newspapers and television stations using government funds siphoned into the National Intelligence Service, the spy agency run by the truly sinister Vladimiro Montesinos that has the very appropriate Spanish-language acronym SIN.

By the time of his 2000 re-election campaign, SIN was spending nearly $9 million every month, much of it for control of the press.

On Jan. 3, the government of Peru formally requested Fujimori’s extradition from Chile, where he arrived unannounced last November after five years of exile in Japan. Fujimori, who successfully held off extradition from Japan by claiming citizenship through his Japanese native parents, was apparently intending to run for president again.

Peru has issued an arrest warrant for Fujimori on more than a dozen charges, including ordering the murder of 25 people by a death squad of elite military and intelligence officers, funneling government money to personal and SIN accounts, and bribing the press and politicians.

Fujimori, 67, claims the charges are all political fabrications.

It isn’t clear if Chile will go along with Peru’s request, especially given the two neighbor’s long history of enmity and Chile’s complicated extradition law.

But whether Peru ever succeeds in bringing “El Chino” — as Peruvian Indians affectionately called him — to trial, clear evidence has been mounting in recent months that he corrupted the Peruvian press on a massive scale.

Much of the evidence comes right from the testimony of Fujimori’s SIN fixer, Montesinos, who has so far been sentenced to 17 years in prison and still faces some 70 further trials.

Just before Christmas, Human Rights Watch issued a report that neatly summarized the case against Fujimori, including what the non-governmental organization (NGO) calls his “control of the press.”

“Probable Cause: Evidence Implicating Fujimori” is available in English on the group’s Web site.

Montesinos, Human Rights Watch notes, “has testified that Fujimori authorized enormous payments to ensure the government’s control over the media, and Fujimori has been charged accordingly.”

In the run-up to the 2000 re-election, Human Rights Watch says, Montesinos “also handed over money regularly to the owners of yellow press tabloids in exchange for front page headlines ridiculing and insulting opposition politicians and journalists.”

In addition to bribing these so-called “chicha” newspapers named for a pre-colonial alcoholic brew, Montesinos even paid to launch more than a half-dozen others. One was even named “El Chino.”

Fujimori spent even more to buy television coverage.

“Montesinos gave millions of dollars to the owners of Channel 4 America, Channel 5 Panamericana, and [Channel] 9 Andina, in exchange for editorial control over their broadcasts,” the Human Rights Watch report says. “He bought Channel 10 Cable News outright for $2 million. Each of these transactions was recorded on videotape.”

In perhaps the most brazen attempt to control the press, the government in 1997 simply stripped the majority owner of Channel 2 Frequencia Latina, the Israeli-born Baruch Ivcher, of his Peruvian citizenship, effectively barring him from owning a TV station.

“Minority shareholders beholden to the government took over the station and its editorial line changed accordingly,” the report states. For good measure, the government also brought criminal charges against Ivcher and his family. Ivcher, the report notes, was acquitted after Fujimori fled Peru.

The report says that virtually from the start of Fujimori’s presidency in 1990, the government was tapping the phones of “a large number of Peruvian citizens, including journalists, members of civil society, and politicians.”

Weighed against the charges that Fujimori directed Montesinos to organize death squads and murder supposed “terrorists,” the corruption of the press and the wiretaps on journalists might seem like lesser crimes.

But the Human Rights Watch report notes that corruption and human rights violations often are inextricably linked.

“In Fujimori’s Peru, large-scale corruption not only deprived Peruvians of public resources that could have been used to alleviate economic need, but also seriously eroded the rule of law, which is essential to the protection of human rights,” the report states. “Moreover, through corruption the government was able to fully subvert the democratic process, eliminating normal checks by the judiciary, legislature, and the media on government abuses.”

PAN-AM HIGHWAY

An occasional report on the working conditions for Latin American journalists.

BRAZIL

A federal judge on Dec. 9 ordered the Web side of the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper, www.folha.uol.com.br, take down 165 pages that detailed allegedly illegal services provided by a Canadian firm to Brasil Telecom, the Paris-based free press group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported. Judge Margarete Morales Sacristan of the federal criminal court in Sao Paulo ordered Folha Online to stop publishing further reports about the Kroll consultancy case, and to take down everything about it that was on the site. The newspaper in July 2004 reported that Brasil Telecom allegedly used Kroll to spy on a competitor. “We deplore this judicial ban, which is both belated and incomprehensible,” RSF said. “Belated, because it has been issued more than a year after Folha de Sao Paulo’s first revelations about the Kroll case. And incomprehensible because no such ban has ever been issued to any other newspaper that reported on this case since then.”


COLOMBIA

In negotiations held under the auspices of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the government of Colombia and the Miami-based Inter American Press Association (IAPA) on Dec. 14 reached an agreement that will move forward the investigation into the 1998 murder of radio journalist Nelson Carvajal. IAPA in 2002 presented IACHR with documentation of what it called “serious irregularities” in the investigation of the case. A new public prosecutor has been appointed to investigate the case, and Colombian Attorney General Mario Iguar?n pledged to reactivate a unit that had been dealing with cases of crimes against journalists, IAPA said. IAPA has sought protection for Carvajal’s family, who have received threats recently.


CUBA

State security agents on Dec. 29 threatened to imprison the 21-year-old editor of the unofficial news agency Youth Without Censorship if she does not stop working as an independent journalist, the Cubanet Web site reported. Liannis Meri?o Aguilera was arrested at her home in the eastern city of Obrero Banes by two state security agents who held her for two hours, Cubanet reported. She was told to stop working as a journalist and accused of reporting false information, an offense punishable by imprisonment in Cuba. Cubanet reported Meri?o intends to continue her journalistic work. Youth Without Censorship was created in September by six journalists between the ages of 19 and 30.


ECUADOR

On Dec. 29, President Alfredo Palacio vetoed an amendment to the criminal code that would have exposed journalists to long prison sentences for broadcasting or publishing a telephone conversation without the express permission of its participants, the Paris-based free press group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported. The amendment was passed by Congress Nov. 30. Palacio’s veto delays implementation of the bill for a year, when it will be considered again by a newly elected Congress.


MEXICO

The mayor of Valle Hermoso, Alberto Alan?s, in the northern state of Tampico, led a drunken mob in an attack on the home of Juan Antonio Espinoso, editor of the evening paper El Buho, the day after Christmas, the National Center of Social Communications (CENCOS) reported. With the gang pounding on windows and damaging the walls of the home, the mayor loudly cursed the editor, finally leaving with the warning that he had “better be careful with your damned shit paper, or I’ll shoot the mother,” apparently referring to Espinsoa’s wife. CENCOs did not report a motive for the mayor’s wrath.

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