Attacks on the Press 2002: Paraguay

The administration of Paraguayan president Luis González Macchi, long paralyzed by accusations of corruption and incompetence, was facing an impeachment challenge at the end of 2002. Throughout the year, the media had criticized the president for trivializing public concerns about his administration. In early December, the Chamber of Deputies voted to impeach him. He will have to defend himself in 2003 should the Senate follow suit.

Meanwhile, the Paraguayan press continues to be divided among various political factions. Politicians and businessmen own media outlets and use them to advance their agendas. According to surveys by civil-society organizations, only about 8 percent of Paraguayans believe that the press is trustworthy. This public cynicism, combined with a recession, has drastically reduced circulation at most daily newspapers. Because of the economic crisis, foreign investors have bought some television stations, dropping news programs and replacing them with entertainment. Nonetheless, the broadcast media–particularly radio, which includes community stations–remain more diverse than other media.

As April 2003 elections approach, support for democracy in the country has fallen, while public acceptance of candidates with authoritarian agendas has risen. Some journalists believe that the media have contributed to the public’s disenchantment with democracy by reporting rumors and gossip and manipulating and sensationalizing the news to benefit certain political parties.

A bill introduced in the Chamber of Deputies in August 2001 to improve access to public information remained stalled in 2002. Parliament member Rafael Filizzola, the journalists’ union Sindicato de Periodistas del Paraguay (Union of Paraguayan Journalists), and other civil-society organizations drafted the legislation. According to some critics, the bill is flawed because it does not force private companies that offer public services to disclose information.

In a development that may have profound implications for press freedom and the campaign to decriminalize defamation in the Americas, in June, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the human rights body of the Washington, D.C.-based Organization of American States (OAS), took the case of Ricardo Canese–a former Paraguayan presidential candidate who was convicted of criminal defamation–to the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights. This is the first time the court has agreed to hear a criminal defamation case.

The lawsuit against Canese dates back to August 1992, when he questioned then presidential candidate Juan Carlos Wasmosy about his ties to former Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner, who was deposed in a bloodless coup in 1989. In statements made to the local press, Canese said that Wasmosy, who went on to become president, was Stroessner’s straw man in the construction partnership CONEMPA, which was awarded a contract to build the giant Itaipú hydroelectric power plant on the Paraguay-Brazil border. In October 1992, CONEMPA business partners whom Canese had not named in his statements sued him for libel and defamation. In March 1994, a judge sentenced Canese to four months in prison and ordered him to pay a US$7,500 fine. An appeals court rejected Canese’s appeal in November 1997 but reduced his sentence to two months in prison and a US$600 fine. In May 2001, a Supreme Court panel dismissed Canese’s appeal for review of the sentence.

The IACHR has asked the Inter-American Court to declare that Paraguay violated Canese’s right to freedom of thought and expression, as well as other rights guaranteed by the American Convention on Human Rights. At the end of 2002, Paraguay’s Supreme Court, fearing a ruling against the country, dismissed the case against Canese, though proceedings continue at the Inter-American Court.

In early November, after two television programs aired the contents of taped telephone conversations that allegedly showed that high-ranking government officials–including President González Macchi–were attempting to influence judicial decisions, the government’s press office distributed a press release threatening to investigate broadcast media and possibly cancel their broadcasting concessions. Shortly after, the office sent out a second press release without the threat, apparently to forestall public criticism.

In late March, a court upheld the 25-year prison sentence of Milcíades Maylin, a local criminal convicted of the January 2001 murder of radio journalist Salvador Medina Velázquez. No motive was ever established, and Medina’s relatives, who have received anonymous death threats, believe that the individuals who ordered the murder have not been brought to justice. They are pressing officials to reopen the case.