The administration of President Ricardo Lagos continued its efforts, begun in 2001, to repeal Chile’s harsh criminal statutes for press offenses. In September, the government introduced a bill to amend several articles of the Penal Code and the Code of Military Justice that impose criminal penalties for “insulting the honor or dignity” of government authorities, members of Congress, senior judges, and members of the armed forces. Congress was still considering the legislation at the end of 2002.
Intense international pressure has pushed Chile to repeal these anachronistic “disrespect” statutes, which date from the colonial era, and bring its laws in line with international standards for freedom of expression. Some Chilean officials and legislators now say they are ready to renounce their special immunity from criticism provided under such statutes. “I am totally convinced that in a democracy, it is incumbent on us to accept criticism,” said congressional deputy Víctor Barrueto. “We should leave behind legislation belonging to authoritarian countries.”
However, because such laws are still on the books, Chilean journalists remain vulnerable. In January, TV commentator Eduardo Yáñez was charged with insulting the Supreme Court after he called Chile’s justice system “immoral, cowardly and corrupt” during a panel debate on Chilevisión’s talk show “El Termómetro.” Yáñez was convicted on January 15 and appealed the decision to a superior court, which upheld the ruling in October. While he is currently free on bail, the journalist cannot leave the country without government permission. If sentenced, Yáñez faces up to five years in prison and a fine, according to Article 263 of Chile’s Penal Code. He was awaiting sentencing at year’s end.
A number of other restrictive statutes remain in effect. Chilean law allows the government to determine who is and isn’t a journalist. And while legislation guarantees the right to protect sources, it restricts that right to “recognized” journalists, journalism students doing an internship, recent journalism graduates from accredited universities, publishers, editors, and foreign correspondents. The law also specifies that one must have a journalism degree to work as a spokesperson or journalist for state institutions.
However, some positive developments occurred on the legal front. In October, Congress passed legislation weakening the powers of the Film Classification Council to impose prior censorship on cinema. The bill restricts the council’s authority to certify films for age group suitability and also eliminates police and military representation on the council. Previously banned films have now been authorized for public viewing.
On September 12, a group of 50 leading journalists founded the press freedom organization Periodistas por la Libertad de Expresión (Journalists for the Freedom of Expression) to defend their colleagues and to alert Chilean officials and the international community of any attacks against the media. The association follows a recent trend in Latin America–begun in the mid-1990s in Argentina, Colombia, and Peru–of journalists uniting to promote press freedom.
Alejandra Matus, a well-known investigative journalist and spokesperson for the group, told CPJ that members hope “to develop an information network that detects any attempt to censor or attack freedom of the press and denounce it publicly.” Matus herself was a victim of one of Chile’s most notorious defamation suits in 1999, when her muckraking exposé of the judiciary, The Black Book of Chilean Justice, was banned under the infamous State Security Law of 1958 and a judge issued a warrant for her arrest.
Matus secured political asylum in the United States in 1999 but returned to Chile in November 2001, after certain provisions of the law used to charge her were repealed and her book was allowed to circulate freely. She appealed her case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, where it remains pending. The commission has the authority to order the Chilean government to award Matus damages.
During 2002, accessing government information remained problematic. In June, after the media harshly criticized President Lagos during a visit to a storm-ravaged region of the country, the government decided that, on future trips, only two media outlets, chosen by Lagos himself, would be allowed to accompany him. Following widespread criticism, however, the order was overturned. A similar situation involving the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress, occurred in July, when the press reported on legislators’ frequent absences, nepotism, and refusals to disclose their salaries. As a result, the chamber restricted journalists’ access to congressional buildings.
Radio in Chile is very opinionated and has a reputation for high-quality and diverse programming. State and private television usually avoid covering controversial issues, filling most news programs with reports on sports, crime, and entertainment.
The fact that only a few companies–notably COPESA and El Mercurio–own print-media outlets ensures a lack of pluralism and diversity in the media. However, some papers broke important stories in 2002. For example, in a report from the Santiago-based daily La Nación, a former Secret Police agent revealed that under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, he and his colleagues had been instructed to conceal information about people abducted during that time. Meanwhile, two other print-media outlets, The Clinic and El Periodista, and two Internet news sites, El Mostrador (www.elmostrador.cl) and Primera Línea (www.primeralinea.cl), continue to make strides in aggressive investigative reporting.
Eduardo Yáñez Morel, free-lance
Yáñez, a regular panelist on Chilevisión’s debate show “El Termómetro,” was detained overnight after proceedings were initiated against him for “disrespecting” the Supreme Court. Yáñez was released on bail and faces up to five years in prison.
The complaint stemmed from a November 27, 2001, episode of the show in which Yáñez called the judiciary “immoral, cowardly, and corrupt” for not compensating a woman who had been imprisoned for a crime she did not commit. Yáñez, a businessman and environmental activist, also said the judiciary had shown “little manliness” in failing to apologize for the incident.
On November 30, 2001, the Supreme Court asked its then president, Hernán Álvarez, to file a criminal complaint accusing Yáñez of “disrespect.” In early January 2002, the judge in charge of the case, Juan Manuel Muñoz Pardo, gave the parties 10 working days to reach a settlement. But the Supreme Court’s new president, Mario Garrido Montt, repeatedly refused to meet with Yáñez, who wanted to offer his apologies.
On January 15, 2002, Judge Muñoz initiated proceedings against Yáñez, and the panelist was detained overnight. The next day, the Santiago Appeals Court confirmed Judge Muñoz’s decision to grant Yáñez a 100,000 peso (US$150) bail.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights then interceded on Yáñez’s behalf, asking the Chilean government to provide it with information on the case. In May, Yáñez told CPJ that although his lawyers had filed repeated requests, Judge Muñoz refused to give them a copy of the summons from the Supreme Court.
Yáñez’s lawyers appealed the case to a superior court, which upheld the conviction on October 29. While he is currently free on bail, the journalist cannot leave the country without government permission. If sentenced, Yáñez faces up to five years in prison and a fine, according to Article 263 of Chile’s Penal Code. He was awaiting sentencing at year’s end.