Attacks on the Press 2000: Uruguay

URUGUAY IS HOME TO ONE OF THE MOST VIBRANT MEDIA SCENES in the Americas, but public officials frequently pursue criminal defamation cases against journalists, while state advertising is distributed to reward media that provide favorable coverage of the government.

Uruguayan journalists say that criminal defamation cases have become commonplace in the last decade. Under Article 26 of Law 16,099, the Uruguayan Press Law, “crimes of defamation and slander committed through the media shall be punished with prison terms within the limits provided for each crime in the Criminal Code.” Committing the offense through the media is termed an “aggravating circumstance” under this article.

On October 9, a judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by the Armed Forces’ Officers Credit Union (Caofa) against Federico Fasano Mertens, director of the Montevideo daily La República. The suit was based on an October 6, 1999 La República report that Caofa’s former board of directors were responsible for millions of dollars in financial losses for the credit union. Two weeks later, Caofa’s current board filed suit against the paper, contending that the allegations damaged the institution and were untruthful. The October ruling in favor of La República came after a local prosecutor found that the information published by the paper was credible and was not aimed at defaming Caofa.

Ironically, Fasano later filed defamation and slander charges against Claudio Paolillo, editor of the rival Montevideo weekly Búsqueda, who had mentioned “blackmail, criminal association, and swindle” in an opinion piece about La República‘s director. Fasano withdrew the charges on October 24, but the case illustrates how journalists can be tempted to use existing press laws against each other. Uruguayan journalists have not reached consensus on the issue of redefining defamation as a matter for civil courts. CPJ’s position is that defamation, particularly in the case of public officials or public figures, should not be a criminal offense.

The Uruguayan Senate is currently discussing a right-to-information bill drafted in 1996 and introduced in the Uruguayan Congress in 1998. Intended to complement the press law, which does not guarantee access to public and government information, the bill would guarantee the right to access public records kept in government archives and would give preferential treatment to media requests for access to such information.

Inexpensive foreign publications (notably from Argentina), high distribution costs, and an advertising migration to television and the Internet have rendered the print media susceptible to pressures from the state, which is the largest advertiser in Uruguay. Journalists have objected to the government’s granting the directors of state agencies and enterprises discretion in their use of advertising funds. They have also called for transparency in the distribution of state advertising, and have proposed the creation of an online database with detailed information on state advertising spending for the last three years.

Reportedly, some publications depend almost entirely on state advertising, which only heightens their vulnerability to government influence. In August, the Montevideo weekly Guambia was forced to close shop for what its director, Antonio Dabezies, called “lack of advertising support.” Some journalists have also reported bribery by public officials to influence coverage.

In an isolated incident, Julio César Da Rosa, owner and editor of the independent station Radio del Centro, in the northern department of Artigas, was murdered by a former local official, Carmelo Nery Colombo, who shot the journalist and then turned the weapon on himself after Da Rosa suggested that Colombo was unfit to run for public office.

Julio César Da Rosa, Radio del Centro

Da Rosa, owner and editor of the independent station Radio del Centro, was murdered by former local official Carmelo Nery Colombo, who shot the journalist and then turned the weapon on himself.

Radio del Centro broadcasts from Baltasar Brum, an isolated village in the northern department of Artigas. Colombo served as secretary of the Baltasar Brum administrative board in 1998-1999, and was running for reelection at the time of the murder.

Da Rosa’s widow, Euda Fernández Machado, told CPJ that Colombo was angered by Da Rosa’s suggestion, in a February 23 broadcast, that he was unfit to run for public office. A supermarket owner with heavy debts, Colombo was being investigated for excessive spending during his previous stint as secretary of the administrative board.

Immediately after the February 23 broadcast, Colombo called Da Rosa and demanded airtime to defend himself, Fernández said. Da Rosa invited him to the studio for a radio appearance at noon on February 24. No one else was present when Colombo arrived. Colombo shot Da Rosa in the heart, and then shot himself in the right temple. Da Rosa’s face was bruised, Fernández said, indicating a scuffle might have taken place before the shooting.

On March 8, CPJ published a news alert about Da Rosa’s murder.