Attacks on the Press 1999: Paraguay

The Paraguayan press was deeply divided by a constitutional conflict between Congress and the president that polarized the entire country and threatened to undermine Paraguay’s fragile democracy.

The political crisis began in 1998, when Gen. Lino Oviedo, who led an unsuccessful 1996 coup against then-president Juan Carlos Wasmosy, emerged as the leading presidential candidate to succeed him. Wasmosy then persuaded a military tribunal to impose a 10-year jail sentence on Oviedo, ostensibly for trying to overthrow him in 1996. Oviedo countered by tapping his running mate, Raúl Cubas Grau, to run in his place.

In May 1998, Cubas won the election and immediately pardoned Oviedo. An outraged Congress then threatened to impeach Cubas. Oviedo supporters, including some journalists, called in turn for the dissolution of Congress, even though there is no constitutional provision for such a move. Other journalists supported Congress’ impeachment efforts.

On January 26, Congress asked a judge to order the arrests of four local journalists for “trying to incite revolution.” Congress accused Julio Osvaldo Domínguez Dibb, editor of the newspaper La Nación, Alberto Vargas Peña, columnist and editorial writer for La Nación, Raúl Melamed, announcer for the radio station Montecarlo, and Juan Carlos Bernabé, director of the radio station Nanawa, of committing a host of offenses against the constitution, mainly because they advocated the dissolution of Congress itself.

The judge ordered Peña and Melamed to serve 10 days in jail, but the sentences had not been executed by year’s end.

The crisis came to a head in March, when Vice President Luis María Argana was gunned down in Asunción. Many suspected president Cubas and Gen. Oviedo of masterminding the assassination. Congress voted to begin impeachment proceedings against Cubas, who ultimately resigned the presidency. Oviedo fled the country for neighboring Argentina, where he received political asylum.

With Cubas and Oviedo out of the picture, the political situation stabilized, but the press itself remained divided. The Sindicato de Periodistas del Paraguay, a Paraguayan press union, maintained that journalists who sided with Oviedo and called for the dissolution of Congress were renegades whose actions jeopardized Paraguay’s democracy. Other journalists strongly disagreed, but by year’s end the rhetoric had subsided to some extent.

Oviedo returned to Paraguay in December, after the newly elected president of Argentina expelled him. Given that the general has vowed to be Paraguay’s next elected leader, the crisis seems far from resolved.