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New York, July 28, 2000 --- In a highly unusual move, the Peruvian government has imposed flight restrictions over Lima that prevented the media from using helicopters to monitor opposition demonstrations protesting today's swearing-in ceremony for President Alberto Fujimori.
These demonstrations, called by opposition leader Alejandro Toledo to protest Fujimori's controversial election to a third term, erupted today into street battles between police and protesters. One foreign journalist and three demonstrators were reportedly injured in the violence.
On the evening of July 24, according to Peruvian press reports, the Defense Command of the Peruvian Air Force (FAP) issued an order prohibiting civilian aircraft flights below 9000 feet over Lima from 6 a.m. on July 25 to 6 p.m. on July 29.
Although the government's flight restrictions were portrayed by the Defense Command of the Peruvian Air Force as necessary for a military parade scheduled for Saturday, Peruvian ombudsman Jorge Santistevan denounced them as a "violation of the right to freedom of information and expression."
Santistevan has sent an official letter to the FAP demanding that flight restrictions be lifted, but has yet to receive a formal answer from the FAP.
The restrictions overlapped with a nationwide protest campaign organized by Toledo, a former World Bank economist and presidential candidate who forced Fujimori into a second round and then boycotted the May 28 final ballot after accusing the president of fraud.
Toledo had pledged to gather up to 200,000 demonstrators in Lima, but mustered only a fraction of that number, according to international news reports. An estimated 80,000 rallied last night outside the Palace of Justice. There were no official estimates of the size of today's demonstration in front of the Palace of Government and the Congress building, where the inauguration ceremony took place.
Riot police cordoned off much of downtown Lima and chased demonstrators down a broad avenue clouded with tear gas, CNN reported. Witnesses said that shots were fired and that police fired tear gas directly into a crowd.
Reporter Paul Vanotti was taken away in an ambulance with his head bloodied, according to the Associated Press. Vanotti works for the SF-based Public Media Center and was hired as a videographer by Lizbeth Hasse, a SF media law attorney who is reporting for Pacific News Service in Lima.
Three other people were also reportedly injured.
Cable news station Canal N, one of only a few local TV outlets that still dare to criticize the Fujimori government in a country where most TV stations depend on state advertising, had recently bought a helicopter to facilitate air coverage of the demonstrations. But on the morning of July 25, Lima police surrounded the helicopter and barred Canal N reporters from boarding it.
The flight restrictions do not affect commercial aircraft, and the FAP argues that they are simply designed to facilitate aircraft training exercises relating to a July 29 military parade in Lima. But it is unclear why the FAP would need to monopolize Lima's air space during this period.
"This order illustrates how all branches of the Peruvian government conspire to make independent reporting impossible," said Ann K. Cooper, CPJ's executive director. "It does not bode well for Fujimori's third term."
CPJ, which has documented widespread press freedom violations in Peru during Fujimori's ten years in power, recently placed the president on its list of the Ten Worst Enemies of the Press for the second consecutive year.