Latin American Journalists Face Fists of Fury

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Latin America can be a nasty place for reporters.

Often enough that it can be called routine, journalists are assassinated on city streets by motor scooter-riding hit men, gunned down in a desert by narcotics traffickers or spirited off into the rain forest, never to be seen again. Their newspapers have been torched, their broadcast antennas bombed. Their cell phones ring and voices say, “stop your reporting or we’ll kill you, or your spouse or your children.”

Or the enemies of a newspaper might decide to just tie it up in litigation, aided by laws that provide punishing fines and imprisonment for “insulting the honor” of certain officials or institutions — even for publishing truthful information.

But Latin American politicians have another traditional way of dealing with an irritating reporter — taking a punch at him.

That’s what Omar Garc?a, a councilman for the Lan?s section of Buenos Aires, did a week ago Wednesday to the editor of the community daily newspaper El Nuveo Cambio. According to a report by the Buenos Aires Press Workers Union (UTPBA for its initials in Spanish), Garc?a jumped the newspaper’s director, Alberto Calleja, right inside the council’s meeting room and “attacked him with punches right in the face.”

“Garcia started yelling at me about an article in the daily, telling me that I had injured him, and that I had offended his family,” Calleja told UTPBA, “and I told him I didn’t know what he was talking about. And just then, without any explanation at all, he attacked me, and afterwards I was also struck by a ton of people.”

Calleja fared a little better than Nicolas Sotelo, the manager of a small community radio FM outlet in a rural town in Paraguay.

According to the Paris-based free-press group Reporters Without Borders (RSF for its initials in French), last Oct. 10 San Juan del Parana Mayor Aldo Lepretti had had it up to here with Sotelo’s critical reporting on the municipal government. Just after Sotelo went off the air, the mayor burst into the studio, threw the journalist to the ground, and hit him repeatedly in the head and body.

RSF says Lepretti then put a revolver to Sotelo’s head, and said: “I have already let you get away with too much.” The mayor didn’t pull the trigger, but he smashed up some broadcast equipment for good measure, and left Sotelo with a broken nose.

When Sotelo filed a complaint for attempted homicide, assault, and vandalism, Lepretti turned around and accused the journalist of fabricating stories to help his wife, who the mayor claims favors a rival faction in Lepretti’s political party.

In Peru last month, a mayoral candidate didn’t wait for a radio journalist to get off the air before he began slugging him. RSF reported this one, too, on Dec. 15. According to its account, Democratic Revolution Party candidate Ricardo Bravo — leading a mob of 60 supporters — broke into the studio of Radio La Divertida in the central town of Tulancingo while journalist Jorge Zamacona Ram&3237;rez was broadcasting live.

Zamacoma said Bravo and his supporters beat him badly, leaving him seriously injured — though they did not carry out Bravo’s threat as the thrashing began: “You will not get out of here alive.”

Zamacoma told RSF that the attack was a reprisal for broadcasting details of documents that allegedly show fraud by Bravo’s family and party.

This particular strain of hot-headedness can even infect diplomats, as Peruvians saw last spring.

According to the Lima-based Institute for Press and Society (IPYS), Peru’s ambassador to Spain, Fernando Olivera Vega, acted very un-diplomatically when radio reporter Bettina Mendoza approached him April 21 as he was leaving a party. IPYS says video of the incident shows Olivera apparently intentionally slamming his car door on the reporter’s arm. Journalists reported he shouted that they were “invading [his] private property” as he drove off. IPYS said the diplomat later apologized to Mendoza and claimed it was all an accident.

An accident, perhaps, but one that carried on a regional tradition of making personal attacks personally.

PAN-AM HIGHWAY

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

CANADA

A demand by authorities that Hamilton (Ont.) Spectator reporter Bill Dunphy hand over notes of an interview with a drug dealer is part of a pattern of government attempting to transform journalists into another arm of the police, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CFJE) said Jan. 25.

Hamilton police want to see the notes Dunphy made of his interview with drug dealer Paul Gravelle, the brother of a man charged with a 1998 murder.

To get the notes, authorities are using a relatively new Criminal Code Provision known as a “production order” that, CFJE says, allows a judge to compel a person to produce documents or data relevant to a crime. The provision, which took effect in September of 2004, provides jail time up to six months and/or a fine of as much $250,000 for refusing the order.

This is the second time a Spectator reporter has come up against the new law. In December 2004, reporter Ken Peters was fined more that $30,000 for refusing to reveal a confidential source, CFJE said. He was spared prison time because the source outed himself, the group added.

“All of these attempts to use information gathered by journalists in the course of their work will inevitably have a chilling effect on their ability to keep the public informed,” said Paul Knox, the chairman of CJFE’s Canadian Issues committee.


COLOMBIA

Threatened with death by right-wing paramilitaries, the owner and editor of the weekly La Tarde in the northeastern town of Barancabermejad folded the paper last week and fled the area. Owner Dior C&3233;sar Gonz?lez became the ninth Colombian journalist forced to flee their home regions or the nation because of threats, RSF said.

“It is becoming impossible for journalists to work in Colombia’s war zones,” the group said. “We are especially worried to learn that a blacklist put out by the paramilitaries, with the names of Gonz?les and other department of Santander journalists, has been circulating since the end of last year, and we again urge the Colombian authorities to pursue their attempts to demobilise the armed groups.”

Gonz?lez decided to flee after two men on a motorcyle — the classic pattern for the Colombian assassins called “sicarios” — came to his home Jan. 17. According to his wife, Tatiana S?nchez, one of the men was armed, and she identified the other as a suspect in a murder the paper had covered in its latest issue.


VENEZUELA

A Venezuelan judge’s order preventing the news media from reporting on legal proceedings in a high-profile murder case amounts to “censorship of the press and the public’s right to know,” declared Gonzalo Marroqu?n, the chairman of the Inter America Press Association (IAPA) Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information.

Sixth Circuit Court Judge Florencio Silano issued the order Jan. 24 at the request of prosecutors who said they wanted to “protect” a key witness in the investigation of the 2004 murder of prosecutor Danilo Anderson. “But the judge’s ruling was seen simply as reflecting the wishes of Venezuelan Attorney General Isa?as Rodr?guez, who had earlier come out publicly against the investigative reporting that the independent press had carried out and published,” IAPA said.

The ruling is part of a pattern of the “hostile attitude towards the independent press” of Venezuela President Hugo Chavez’s administration, “which is incongruous in a democracy where the people’s freedoms and rights should be strengthened and respected,” said Marroqu?n, editor of the Guatemalan daily Prensa Libre.

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