The Curious Case of Hollinger’s Lone Latin American Paper

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Despite the apparent complexity of charges and counter-charges drawn from the arcana of securities law, all the litigation between and among Conrad Black’s many corporate entities and their various discontented directors and shareholders essentially circles around one question: Who gets to sell off the crown jewels of the troubled newspaper empire?

In just the last few days, a Delaware Chancery Court judge prevented Black from going through with his plan of selling the papers to Frederick and David Barclay. That would have been accomplished by selling Toronto-based Hollinger Inc., which has a controlling stake in Hollinger International, the Chicago-based entity that actually owns such coveted papers as The Daily Telegraph in London; the Chicago Sun-Times and its cluster of dailies and community papers; and The Jerusalem Post. Hollinger International sued to stop Black because it is taking bids on the properties in its own auction. Black’s plan was rendered moot this week when the Barclay twins formally withdrew their offer for Hollinger Inc.

Each side accused the other of interfering with its sales process and was asking the courts to tell the other to butt out. Neither side, of course, wanted the other to dispose of valuable assets in the meantime.

A side issue, too, has been the cash crunch at Hollinger Inc., which this week missed its first interest payment on $120 million in bonds. Hollinger maintained at trial that it doesn’t have sufficient funds to make the payment, so the judge’s order requires Hollinger International to loan $74 million to its parent. The judge also pointedly requires Hollinger Inc. to take “prompt steps” to collect the money from Black and his holding company Ravelston Corp. Ltd.

That’s why it’s so curious that in the middle of this noisy legal dispute, new owners have taken charge of La Rep?blica, the San Jose, Costa Rica, daily that was the only newspaper Hollinger — some version of Hollinger, anyway — owned in Latin America.

Even more curious is that the official spokespersons for Hollinger Inc. and Hollinger International have no idea that control of La Rep?blica has been sold — and are even unclear about which one of them owned it in the first place.

The new owners down in Costa Rica aren’t saying much, either. There was a brief story in Costa Rica’s biggest paper, La Naci?n, on Jan. 30. E-mail messages from E&P to La Rep?blica’s Executive President Fred Blaser and Legal Director Hugo Chavar?a were not returned.

According to La Naci?n’s story by Editor Jos? Enrique Rojas, an entity called El Grupo Costa Rica Am?ricas have taken control of an unspecified majority stake in La Rep?blica, which is considered one of the leading papers in the country. The story quotes Chavar?a, the legal director, as saying the new owners include him and Blaser, but that the exact majority percentage the group owns is “difficult to detail.”

Further, Chavar?a said Hollinger Inc. — the parent company of Hollinger International — was the former owner, and that it retains a minority share in the newspaper. That’s why the paper was never affected by the turmoil in Hollinger International, he added.

That’s news, apparently, to Hollinger Inc. Spokesperson Jim Badenhausen told E&P that La Rep?blica was not a Hollinger Inc. paper. He referred a reporter to a spokesperson for Hollinger International. But that spokesperson, Molly Morse, had already said it was a Hollinger Inc. paper. Contacted again, she repeated that Hollinger International has never owned the Costa Rican paper.

Foreigners were not allowed to own newspapers in Costa Rica until 1994. According to Chavar?a in La Naci?n, Hollinger Inc. first invested in La Rep?blica in 1992 and “by degrees” increased its stake until it owned 99% of its stock in 1996.

The paper improved considerably under Hollinger, according to a column by Blaser last December. Headlined “Nobody reads La Rep?blica,” Blaser recounted how, as the new managing director in 1996, he tagged along one day with a photographer/reporter who did the paper’s man-on-the-street feature called “What do you think?” When they approached three female college students and identified themselves as journalists for La Rep?blica, the three “nearly died of laughter,” Blaser wrote: “‘La Rep?blica?’ they shrieked. ‘But nobody reads La Rep?blica!'”

“The sad truth was that the paper had decayed so much that they were right,” Blaser continued. La Rep?blica, he wrote, had so little identity — and self-esteem — that at one point it advertised itself as “the newspaper for the whole family” for no better reason than that “it sounded good and didn’t offend anyone.”

The newsroom had another name for their paper, he said: “La Naci?n Lite,” he said.

Under the leadership team brought in by Hollinger, Blaser said, the paper focused on business and financial news — it bills itself as “Number 1 on the economy and business” — and targeted a younger generation of readers. The changes eventually generated greatly improved circulation and advertising revenues, he said.

“Now, internally at least, we can laugh to think that just a short time ago the mere mention of our name provoked the response: ‘But nobody reads La Rep?blica!”



PAN-AM HIGHWAY

An occasional diary of the working conditions for journalists in Latin America

Latin American journalists endured a particularly violent period in the past few weeks, with assassinations in Colombia, Nicaragua and Peru and a botched murder attempt that killed the driver of a television station director in Ecuador. Journalists also faced threats to their freedom from the courts in Argentina and Paraguay.

ARGENTINA

In a Feb. 2 ruling reported and condemned by the Miami-based Inter American Press Association (IAPA), a judge in the northern province of Salta ordered the prior censorship of the newspaper El Tribuno. Judge Guillermo F?lix D?az ordered Tribuno editors “to abstain from using expressions, sentences, phrases, or words that could influence a presumption of innocence, or publishing the picture of Francisco Jos? Alvarez.” Alvarez had been accused of murder, but his case was dismissed on a legal technicality, IAPA reported. The ruling covers “articles, commentaries, signed or unsigned, whatever the circumstance, relating to the acts that were investigated” in the locally notorious criminal case.

COLOMBIA

Oscar Alberto Polanco Herrera, a commentator for the only television news program in the western city of Cartago, was assassinated in the classic “sicario”-style as he was leaving the station Feb. 4. The 37-year-old was shot three times in the head by an assailant who fired from the back of a motorcycle driven by someone else, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF, for its initials in French) reported. In the last month, RSF said, Polanco had added a new daily segment to the program that reported on irregularities by local governing bodies, including one report that linked the city’s mayor to a drug trafficker. IAPA dispatched a journalist in its Rapid Response Unit to investigate, but no motive for the shooting could be immediately established. Rafael Molina, chairman of IAPA’s Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, and director of the Dominican magazine Ahora, said, “The murders of Polanco Herrerra, as well as those of Jos? Nel Mu?oz, Juan Carlos Benavides, Jaime Regifo Revero, Guillermo Bravo Vega, Jos? Emeterio Rivas y William Soto Cheng, that happened in 2003, show the urgent need to strengthen safety in Colombia for journalists in order to end impunity.”

Just three days later, on Feb. 7, Mart?n La Rotta Duarte, the owner and manager of the radio station La Palma Est?reo in the northern town of San Alberto, was discovered stabbed in his home. He died on the way to the hospital. No suspects were immediately arrested and no motive for the killing had been established, the Bogota-based Foundation for Press Liberty (FLIP, for its initials in Spanish) reported Feb. 9. No death threats had been made to the station, which confined its programming to music and cultural affairs.

On the same day, Feb. 7, a photographer for the Bogota daily El Tiempo, Guillermo Herrera Morales, was wounded in a gunfire attack on the military helicopter he was riding in on a flight from the western municipality of San Juanito, FLIP reported. Herrera Morales had been covering the visit of a governor to the municipality. He recovered from the gunshot wound to his left leg. The military blamed the attack on the 53 Front of the left-wing guerrilla group Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC).

In?s Pe?a, the 22-year-old host of the “Cultura por la Vida” segment of a weekly television program in the northeastern port city of Barrancabermeja, was kidnapped, tortured and threatened with death if she did not abandon her journalistic work, the Popular Women’s Organization (OFP in Spanish) reported Jan. 29. OFP said two armed paramilitaries forced her into a car and “physically and mentally tortured” the journalist and OFP leader. FLIP reported that Pe?a had recently condemned the arrival of paramilitaries in the region.

CUBA

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization awarded its 2004 UNESCO-Guillermo Cano Press Freedom World Prize to Cuban journalist and poet Ra?l Rivero, who has been in jail for almost a year serving a 20-year sentence imposed in last spring’s government crackdown on independent journalists and other dissidents. Rivero is a member of the IAPA’s board of directors and vice chairman of its Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information.

ECUADOR

Driver Ricardo Mendoza was shot to death Feb. 9 by two gunmen who tried to kill Telesistema TV station director Carlos Mu?oz Insua by firing seven shots at the journalist’s car while it waited at a traffic light in the southwestern city of Guayaquil, RSF reported. Mu?oz was not injured in the attack. Agence France-Presse reported that a group called the Revolutionary People’s Militias (MRP in Spanish) claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was because Telesistema would not broadcast its statements. While expressing regret for the death of Mu?oz’s driver, which it said was not a target, the MRP threatened other journalists and news organizations and said it would carry out further attacks.

GUATEMALA

In the latest advertisement in its campaign for justice in the cases of unpunished crimes against journalists, IAPA Feb. 18 launched an advertisement in newspapers and magazines throughout the Americas asking readers to add their signature to a letter urging Guatemalan President Oscar Berger to help solve the July 1993 murder of Jorge Carpio Nicolle, the editor of the national daily newspaper El Gr?fico. The campaign, with the slogan “Let Us Put an End to Impunity,” calls attention to the cases of 279 journalists murdered over the last 15 years in which there has been no punishment of the actual killers or the masterminds who ordered the assassinations.

HAITI

The fighting that proceeded President Jean-Bertrand Arisitide’s flight from the country was particularly bloody for Haiti’s besieged journalists, RSF reported. On Feb. 21, Pierre Elic?me, owner and manager of Radio Hispagnola, in a town near Cap-Ha?tien was shot several times and injured severely by men who forced their way into his car. The next day his radio station was torched along with three others. Several foreign journalists covering pro-Aristide demonstrations were injured, including a Spanish cameraman who was injured in the ear by the swing of a machete.

Even before the recent virtual civil war erupted, journalists and news organizations were subjected to nearly 40 “intolerable” attacks on press freedom, RSF reported Feb. 11. In Cap-Ha?tien, the privately owned station Radio Vision 2000 — the only independent news source in the city — was attacked Feb. 7 by a gang of pro-government armed men who smashed equipment with hammers before setting fire to the studio.

RSF said more than 200 news outlets, mostly radio stations, had been shut down permanently or temporarily since the beginning of the year by gangs that smashed equipment, burned stations and toppled transmitters.

HONDURAS

Andres Alvarado Lozano, the former publisher of the nation’s largest newspaper, La Prensa in San Pedro Sula, died Feb. 11 at age 84, The Associated Press reported. He is survived by his wife, Maria Elena Bartoli, and three children.

MEXICO

In a letter to the governor of the state of Sinaloa, the New York City-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said it was “deeply concerned” about the threats and harassment directed against Irene Medrano Villanueva, a reporter with the daily El Sol de Sinaloa in the state capital of Culiac?n.

After her series of reports on child prostitution was published, Medrano received anonymous death threats by phone at the newspaper and her home. The word “death” was painted on her car Dec. 8, CPJ said, and on Dec. 13 a car deliberately hit her car three times while she was driving. On Dec. 28, her brakes failed while she tried to stop for a stop sign, and a mechanic discovered the brake lines had been tampered with. The threatening calls, plus an incident in which someone tailed her car, continued through January, CPJ said.

NICARAGUA

Carlos Jos? Guadamuz was murdered by five shots fired at point-black range as he arrived at the Managua TV station Canal 23, where he hosted an afternoon program. The gunman was seized as he tried to flee and was identified as William Hurtado Garc?a, a security guard. Guademuz was a former Sandinista activist who directed the official radio station during the FSLN regime, but later fell out with the party and became a bitter critic of its leader, Daniel Ortega. In his last broadcast, he accused Ortega of accepting a bribe. Guademuz’s oldest son publicly blamed Ortega for the murder and said his father had received threats in the past, CPJ reported. “We urge the Nicaraguan government to conduct an in-depth investigation into the murder of Carlos Jos? Guadamuz and to ensure that those responsible are punished,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper.

PARAGUAY

Former Paraguayan President Juan Carlos Wasmosy is seeking $10 million (U.S.) in damages in a defamation suit against investigative journalists Nacha S?nchez and Mabel Rehnfeldt of the national daily newspaper ABC Color for their reports on fraudulent schemes at the state-run oil company Petropar, reported the Paraguay Journalists Union (SPP in Spanish). “This is clearly an act of coercion and intimidation aimed at undermining the journalists’ investigation,” SPP said in a statement. “The organization condemns the use of such tactics to silence the press and recalls that Wasmosy filed similar complaints previously against journalists Jos? Amarilla and Dolly Galeano, among others, for their (journalistic reports).”

PERU

Antonio De la Torre Echeand?a, a 43-year-old reporter and commentator for Radio Orbita in the city of Yungay, was stabbed to death while walking home from a Valentine’s Day party by two men, according to the Lima-based Institute for Press and Society (IPYS in Spanish). Before he died, he identified one of his attackers. Hip?lito Casiano Vega Jara, a driver for Yungay Province Mayor Amaro Le?n, was later arrested for the crime. IPYS reported that a few days before his murder, De la Torre Echeand?a aired a segment called “With Truth and Justice” that was “highly controversial” and “used crude terminology and made very direct accusations.” It quoted a colleague as saying De la Torre Echeand?a had been receiving anonymous death threats “on a continuous basis.”

Journalists covering a political dispute at the Santa Provincial Municipality town council in the city of Chimbote were attacked by partisans of the mayor, who had been suspended from office, in a Feb. 2 incident, IPYS reported. The mayor and his supporters threw bricks, chairs, furniture and other heavy objects at the journalists, injuring newspaper reporters Jonel Bonilla Luna of La Industria and Abigail D?az Moncada of Diario de Chimbote.

VENEZUELA

V?ctor Serra, a news reporter for the daily Cambio de Siglo in the southwestern city of M?rida, was beaten by eight riot police while covering a Feb. 12 student protest at the Universidad de los Andes, IPYS reported.

A military intelligence service officer was sentenced to two years and five months in prison Jan. 30 for the June 2002 beating of El Universal newspaper reporter Alicia La Rotta while she covered a march of retired military officers, IPYS reported. The court stayed the sentence on Marco Publio Rosales, a former functionary with the Military Intelligence Directorate (DIM in Spanish), while he seeks an appeal.

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