Attacks on the Press 2000: Chile

THE CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION OF FORMER DICTATOR GEN. AUGUSTO PINOCHET and other military officers severely tested the independence of the Chilean judiciary at a time when the courts were being used to harass journalists investigating official corruption.

After narrowly defeating rightist candidate Joaquín Lavín in a January 16 run-off election, Ricardo Lagos took office on March 11, becoming the first socialist president since Salvador Allende was toppled in a 1973 military coup led by General Pinochet. A week before Lagos’ inauguration, Pinochet returned to Chile from the United Kingdom after the House of Lords ruled him medically unfit to be extradited to Spain, where he faced charges of crimes against humanity. On March 3, the day Pinochet returned to Chile, army officials ordered the media off the Santiago military airstrip where his plane was going to land. The order was later rescinded.

On August 8, the Chilean Supreme Court stripped Pinochet of the immunity he enjoyed as a senator for life, clearing the way for him to stand trial in Chile for crimes committed during his 17-year rule. Other military officers also faced trial.

In 2000, many Chilean media outlets expanded their political coverage, and journalists were given relatively free rein to investigate the past excesses of Pinochet and his fellow generals, a story that attracted global interest. As in many other countries, however, media owners gave journalists less latitude when their personal interests were touched upon. In July, Bernardita del Solar Vera, editor of the weekly Qué Pasa, was fired after she ran an in-depth story about Chile’s business elite that mentioned Álvaro Saieh, the president of the COPESA company, which owns Qué Pasa.

The Chilean media scene received a much-needed injection of fresh blood in the launch of the Internet news site El Mostrador (, which has no ties to COPESA or the country’s other big media company, El Mercurio. The site consistently scooped the country’s traditional newspapers last year. Meanwhile, a satirical newspaper called The Clinic, in reference to the London clinic where Pinochet underwent back surgery shortly before being arrested, challenged the status quo with its irreverent coverage of political life and social mores.

Journalists eagerly covered a police investigation into the mysterious November 1999 disappearance of forestry student Jorge Matute Johns in the city of Concepción. In an unusually bold move, a local paper alleged that a powerful military police force known as the Carabineros was responsible for the abduction. The judge in charge of the case, Flora Sepúlveda, initially banned reporting on the proceedings, but after widespread protest she lifted the ban in March, 12 days after it was imposed.

On December 19, a Santiago judge upheld an arrest warrant against investigative journalist Alejandra Matus and a ban on The Black Book of Chilean Justice, her scathing historical exposé of the Chilean judiciary. The Matus affair began on April 14, 1999, when Appeals Court judge Rafael Huerta banned The Black Book, which had been published the day before. The ban was issued in response to a suit filed by Supreme Court justice Servando Jordán under Article 6b of the 1958 State Security Law, which makes it a crime against public order to insult high officials. After Judge Huerta ordered the seizure of the book’s entire press run, Matus flew to Argentina in order to avoid arrest. The CEO and the chief editor of Matus’ publishing company, Planeta, were briefly detained in June of 1999 in connection with the case.

On November 1, 1999, the United States granted Matus political asylum. On October 2, 2000, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C., agreed to consider her case. Matus told CPJ that as part of a settlement, she had proposed that the government repeal laws that criminalize perceived insults and permit prior censorship. The government had not yet responded by year’s end.

On February 15, in an apparent conflict of interest, the Supreme Court convicted journalist José Ale of insulting Supreme Court judge Servando Jordán under Article 6b of the State Security Law. In a 1998 article for the Santiago daily La Tercera, Ale wrote that during Jordán’s two-year tenure as chief justice of the Supreme Court “the prestige of the Chilean judiciary fell to one of its lowest levels ever.” Two weeks before Ale was convicted and given an 18-month suspended prison sentence, the judge who drafted the decision, Vivian Bullemore, publicly called him a “professional slanderer.” Ale was later pardoned by President Lagos.

At year’s end, Paula Afani, also a reporter for La Tercera, awaited a court decision on charges of violating the 1967 Law on Publicity Abuses and the 1995 Drugs Law for a 1999 article on a government investigation into drug trafficking and money laundering. The State Defense Council (CDE), the office charged with the defense of the state’s legal interests, had asked for a five-year prison term.

These cases clearly highlighted the necessity of strengthening legal defenses for press freedom in Chile. The lower house rejected a press-law reform bill proposed by a joint congressional committee. President Lagos then sent Congress a revised version of the bill, which legislators had not yet voted on as this volume went to press.