Journalists in Paraguay face one of the region’s most difficult working environments, in which threats, attacks, and criminal defamation lawsuits occur frequently. Throughout 2001, the Paraguayan press remained sharply divided between the ruling Colorado Party and the opposition Liberal Party. The press does cover official corruption, but media owners’ allegiances to powerful politicians and businessmen, combined with a lack of balance and accuracy, damaged the credibility of much local journalism.
On July 16, President Luis González Macchi signed Law 1728 on Administrative Transparency and Free Access to Information. The law ostensibly codified Article 28 of the Paraguayan Constitution, which states that public sources of information “are free to all.” In fact, Law 1728 made it extremely difficult for journalists to obtain any public records and left a dangerous amount of discretion in the hands of the president and other officials.
Journalists also argued that public officials could take advantage of the law to hinder or delay newspaper investigations into corruption, and that the complicated bureaucratic procedures required for obtaining official information hampered the media’s ability to report news. After severe criticism from the media and civil society, the president repealed the law on September 24.
Parliament is currently considering new legislation to address the issue of access to information. One bill, drafted in collaboration with the local press union Sindicato de Periodistas del Paraguay (SPP) and other civil society groups, would shorten the waiting period to access official information and would require that all information be granted free of charge.
On September 20, the Chamber of Deputies passed a bill to amend Law 1682, which was originally intended to restrict the activities of credit reporting agencies. But journalists claimed that it did not distinguish between public figures and private citizens, making it almost impossible to monitor the finances of government officials. At year’s end, the bill, which exempted the press from those restrictions, moved to the Senate. Senators then added modifications prohibiting the press from publishing “sensitive” personal data such as medical information, religious beliefs, race, and political affiliation. Paraguayan journalists sharply criticized the changes.
Criminal defamation laws were used throughout 2001 to stifle criticism. Several articles of the Penal Code establish penalties ranging from a fine to two years’ imprisonment for libel, defamation, and slander. While journalists are rarely imprisoned for their work, they have been ordered to pay hefty monetary damages. In September, for instance, Telmo Tomás Ibáñez Jara, ABC Color correspondent in the city of Concepción, was ordered to pay a fine of 19 million guaraníes (approximately US$4,000) in connection with a criminal defamation lawsuit filed by three city officials. In November, the Concepción Appeals Court reversed the ruling.
In April, a judge ordered ABC Color editor Aldo Zuccolillo to pay a fine of 470 million guaraníes (around US$100,000) in a criminal complaint filed in 1998 by Colorado Party senator Juan Carlos Galaverna. The judgment was under appeal at press time. Another criminal defamation lawsuit, filed against Zuccolillo in May by former Colorado Party deputy Oscar González, was dismissed, according to ABC Color.
In December, community radio stations achieved a significant victory when the Comptroller General’s Office ruled that they may now request permits from the National Telecommunications Commission without having to bid for frequencies in a public auction, according to the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC).
Paraguay remains a dangerous place for journalists. In January, an unidentified gunman murdered journalist Salvador Medina Velázquez. His family linked the attack to his reports on criminal gangs. Early in the year, police arrested four suspects. In September, a prosecutor charged one of them with Medina’s murder and requested that charges against the others be dismissed. A court found the remaining suspect guilty and sentenced him to 25 years in prison. Medina’s relatives, however, believe that the individuals who ordered the murder have not been brought to justice.
In May, journalist Séver del Puerto and his family were threatened with death, apparently because of del Puerto’s free-lance investigation into the alleged involvement of a former interior minister and several judges in an August 2000 robbery at Asunción International Airport. Because of the threats, del Puerto and his family went into hiding. The journalist was later admitted to a hospital after an emotional breakdown.
Journalists outside major cities faced the most attacks and threats. In November, Vicenta Risso, correspondent for the Asunción daily ABC Color in Presidente Hayes Department, received several death threats after taking a picture of a local official who was using a public vehicle for election campaigns, according to the SPP. Also in November, ABC Color correspondent César Martínez reported that he had received death threats from Colorado Party politicians because of his critical coverage, the SPP reported.
Salvador Medina Velázquez
Medina, 27, president of the board of community radio station FM Ñemity in the town of Capiibary in the San Pedro Department, about 250 km (150 miles) from Asunción, was ambushed and shot by an unidentified gunman.
The journalist was driving a motorcycle with his brother Gaspar when a masked attacker came out from behind some bushes and shot him in the left side at point-blank range. The attacker then fled into the bush, according to local press reports. Medina lost control of his motorcycle, fell to the ground, and died immediately.
The journalist’s family linked the attack to his reports on timber smuggling in state-owned forest reservations in Capiibary, local sources told CPJ. In particular, Medina had singled out a gang of alleged smugglers with ties to the National Republican Association (ARN), also known as the Colorado Party.
One of those whom Medina had accused was arrested in March for timber smuggling. In addition, Medina had covered incidents of livestock theft, along with organized crime in a nearby town.
In January and February, the Paraguayan police arrested four men suspected of killing Medina, but at least four other suspects were still at large.
In a hearing on September 6, Public Prosecutor Ramón Trinidad Zelaya charged Milcíades Maylin, one of the four suspects in police custody, with Medina’s murder. Judge Silvio Flores granted Trinidad’s request that the charges against the three other suspects be dismissed.
On October 16, a three-judge sentencing tribunal found Maylin guilty of murdering Medina and sentenced him to a 25-year prison term. Medina’s relatives, however, believe that the individuals who ordered the murder have not been brought to justice.
Séver del Puerto, Radio Cáritas-Universidad Católica
Radio journalist del Puerto and his family suffered death threats and other harassment related to his investigations linking a prominent government official to a high-profile robbery.
Del Puerto, a crime reporter for the Catholic radio station Radio Cáritas-Universidad Católica in Asunción, worked for the current-events radio programs “En el Cambio” and “El Pulso del País.”
Beginning May 7, the journalist received numerous phone calls from anonymous individuals who threatened to kill him and his family. His car was also followed, according to local sources contacted by CPJ. Fearing for his life and his family, del Puerto took his family into hiding at several different locations. The threats intensified on May 14, prompting the journalist to seek refuge at the offices of the television station Canal 9.
The threats apparently came in retaliation for del Puerto’s free-lance investigation into the alleged involvement of former interior minister Walter Bower and several judges in an August 2000 robbery at the Asunción International Airport.
Del Puerto spent five months investigating the robbery, in which heavily armed robbers stole 40 billion guaraníes (US$11 million) from armored trucks owned by Prosegur del Paraguay S.A., a private security company. The journalist was planning to sell his story to leading media outlets in Paraguay, according to local sources.
After arriving at Canal 9 on May 14, del Puerto denounced the death threats and claimed to have evidence linking Bower, who is currently a parliamentary deputy for the Colorado Party, to the robbery. Later that evening, the journalist filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office, backed up by video and audio recordings in which an eyewitness accused Bower of masterminding the robbery. The Paraguayan police then assigned six police agents to protect del Puerto and his immediate relatives, according to local news reports.
On May 20, del Puerto was admitted to the Hospital Universitario, where he received treatment for a nervous breakdown. He later received additional treatment at a private clinic.
On May 22, local and regional human rights activists filed a writ of habeas corpus with the Paraguayan Supreme Court, requesting security guarantees for del Puerto and his family. The signatories included the local press freedom organization Sindicato de Periodistas del Paraguay, the regional chapter of the U.S.-based Center for Justice and International Law, and the local human rights group Coordinadora de Derechos Humanos del Paraguay. CPJ was unable to confirm the status of this petition by press time.
On June 4, CPJ sent President Luis González Macchi a letter of protest expressing concern for the safety of del Puerto and his family.
Telmo Tomás Ibáñez Jara, ABC Color
THREATENED, LEGAL ACTION
Ibáñez, correspondent for the Asunción daily ABC Color in the city of Concepción, faced a criminal defamation lawsuit filed by three city officials.
The case stemmed from a May 27 article in ABC Color, titled “The Mayor Has Accomplices and Accessories.” Ibáñez’s article cited official documents from the Comptroller General’s Office, presenting evidence of financial misconduct in the administration of Concepción mayor Genaro Domínguez Bogado.
Ibáñez also wrote that city councilmen Andrés Villalba Barrios, Eulogio Echagüe Insfrán, and Blas Cáceres, who apparently ignored the audit’s findings, were involved in the irregularities. On June 26, the three councilmen filed a criminal complaint against the journalist, accusing him of “aggravated libel.”
A month later, on July 25, the Ministry of Interior took over Concepción’s local government, temporarily removing Mayor Domínguez from office.
On September 21, Judge Juan Pablo Cardozo Notario found Ibáñez guilty of defamation and ordered him to pay a fine of 19 million guaraníes (approximately US$4,000) plus legal costs.
On September 24, the local press union Sindicato de Periodistas del Paraguay issued a statement condemning the sentence.
On September 25 and 26, the journalist received several anonymous phone threats, according to ABC Color. He was also trailed by an unidentified vehicle. The threats prompted Ibáñez to visit the local police headquarters.
On October 5, Ibáñez filed an appeal with the Concepción Appeals Court. On November 28, the court revoked Judge Cardozo’s ruling and ordered the plaintiffs to assume the legal costs of the proceedings.