Attacks on the Press 2000: Paraguay

A COUP ATTEMPT IN MAY (THE THIRD SUCH ATTEMPT SINCE 1996) and vice-presidential elections in August tested the Paraguayan media and caused increased political polarizarion.

On May 18, rebel forces loyal to Gen. Lino Oviedo, the fugitive leader of a faction within the ruling Colorado Party, tried to take over army barracks in the capital of Asunción. During the six-hour coup attempt, rebel soldiers entered the offices of Radio 9.70 and demanded that its staff air a recorded proclamation, according to the local press association Sindicato de Periodistas del Paraguay (SPP). When their demand was rejected, the soldiers threatened the journalists and forced them to broadcast the proclamation. General Oviedo, who led an unsuccessful coup in 1996 and fled Paraguay after being accused of masterminding the March 1999 assassination of Vice President Luis María Argaña, denied he was behind the May coup attempt.

Invoking Article 288 of the Paraguayan Constitution, President Luis González Macchi decreed a month-long state of emergency on May 19, which Congress then ratified. Invoking the broad powers granted by the decree, the government detained and held Juan Carlos Bernabé, director of Radio Nanawa, and Adriana and Miguel Fernández, owners of Radio Asunción, for allegedly backing the coup and General Oviedo. Authorities also dismantled Radio Asunción’s transmitting equipment, and ordered the detention of Hugo Ruiz Olazar, a reporter for the Asunción daily ABC Color, the Argentinean daily Clarín, and Agence France-Presse, on charges of involvement in the coup attempt.

Two days later, the SPP sent a letter to González Macchi expressing concern that press freedom was being curtailed under the state of emergency. While condemning the coup attempt and criticizing some journalists and media owners for defending General Oviedo, the SPP denounced “abuses committed under the state of emergency that seriously affected freedom of the press.” The SPP called for the reopening of Radio Asunción and demanded that any evidence linking journalists and media owners to the coup plot be made public. On May 30, the SPP sent a second protest letter to González Macchi, and the next day the Paraguayan president revoked the state of emergency. The detained journalists were all released in early June.

In mid-June, Brazilian police arrested General Oviedo in the city of Foz de Iguazú, on the border between Brazil and Paraguay. Brazilian police who searched Oviedo’s apartment found a list with the names of journalists whom the general allegedly planned to kill, according to the SPP. At year’s end, Oviedo was in jail awaiting extradition to Paraguay, where he faced charges for the murder of Argaña.

Lines between politicians and media are often blurred in Paraguay. During the vice-presidential campaign, the press mirrored the intense polarization between those supporting Colorado Party candidate Félix Argaña, son of the late vice-president, and those favoring Liberal Party candidate Julio César Franco. Former president Juan Carlos Wasmosy owns the Grupo Multimedia, which controls one daily newspaper, one magazine, and two radio stations. Some high-ranking members of the ruling Colorado Party own newspapers and radio stations, and have been accused of using them to further their political ambitions. Other media owners are known to have cozy relationships with government officials, and have thrown their full weight behind political campaigns. Before the August elections, media with alleged links to General Oviedo called on Colorado Party supporters to cast their votes for Franco, in order to prevent the “ArgaÑista” faction from taking the vice-presidency.

In the tense climate that followed the voting, supporters of the main political parties attacked several radio stations. The Asunción daily Noticias received phone threats on August 18 and 20. On August 24, Franco was declared the winner in the race. CPJ sent a letter to President González Macchi on August 25, expressing its deep concern about press freedom violations during the vice-presidential elections.

Criminal defamation laws are frequently used to silence journalists and smother criticism in Paraguay. Under the new Criminal Code, effective since 1998, libel, defamation, and slander remain criminal offenses. Articles 150, 151, and 152 of this law provide for penalties ranging from a fine to two years’ imprisonment for libel, defamation, and slander, although journalists are generally not jailed for their work. Several journalists have criminal lawsuits pending against them, however, and others have had to pay monetary fines.

At year’s end, the Senate was discussing a bill that would improve access to public information, as mandated by the 1992 Constitution. Some Paraguayan journalists argue that this bill is flawed because access to public information can still be denied if it affects national security or individual privacy, which are both broadly defined.

Journalists contacted by CPJ said that political criteria, not economic and technical ones, determine the granting of radio frequencies, a process that has become more selective in the face of increased competition for limited advertising revenues in a small market. Powerful commercial radio associations have joined forces against community and alternative radio stations and have pressured the government to shut them down, according to the SPP. The National Commission for Telecommunications (CONATEL), the state agency charged with regulating radio frequencies, has confiscated the equipment of several community radio stations, while others have been waiting since 1995 for CONATEL to find radio frequencies for them.

Radio Primero de Marzo

During vice-presidential elections on August 13, Radio Primero de Marzo in the capital, Asunción, was threatened and had its signal interfered with, according to CPJ sources and local press reports. During the afternoon of election day, a mysterious signal interfered with the station’s frequency moments before it was to broadcast a political program announcing the results of its exit polls. The jamming signal broadcast voices speaking in the indigenous Guaraní language and threatening to blow up Radio Primero de Marzo’s transmitter; it remained on the air for about an hour and a half.

The voices also threatened to “disappear” Mabel Rehnfeldt, host of Radio Primero de Marzo’s program “Contra Viento y Marea” (“Against All Obstacles”). Rehnfeldt is a vocal critic of the Paraguayan government who also writes for the Asunción daily ABC Color.

After this incident, Radio Primero de Marzo sent a helicopter to inspect its transmitting facility. The station also requested police protection.

CPJ protested the threats against the station in an August 25 letter to President Luis González Macchi.

Radio Ñandutí

In the tense climate that followed vice-presidential elections on August 13, supporters of the ruling Colorado Party attacked the independent station Radio Ñandutí in the capital, Asunción, according to CPJ sources and local press reports.

Radio Ñandutí was one of only a few local news organizations to predict the victory of Liberal Party candidate Julio César Franco in the extremely close race. (The result was not finally confirmed until August 24.)

On the evening of August 15, Colorado Party supporters threw stones and bottles at Radio Ñandutí’s offices on their way to a protest demonstration in front of the Superior Court for Electoral Justice. The attackers also threw firecrackers and insulted Radio Ñandutí’s director, Humberto Rubín. No one was injured in the attack.

In an August 25 protest letter sent to President Luis González Macchi, CPJ called for an investigation and demanded that Paraguayan journalists be protected against reprisals for their work.