Attacks on the Press 2004: Chile


A protracted sex scandal that roiled Chile during 2004 highlighted the country’s restrictive legal framework for journalists, as well as public officials’ lack of tolerance for criticism in the media. In September 2003, businessman Claudio Spiniak was arrested and accused of leading a prostitution and pornography ring. Politicians, prominent businessmen, and a Roman Catholic bishop have also been accused of involvement.

On July 26, three TV reporters who had broadcast images of Spiniak’s arrest and a private party he hosted were charged with violating Article 161-A of the Chilean Penal Code, which forbids recording and broadcasting images filmed at private locations without the consent of the individuals involved. On August 10, Chile’s Ninth Chamber of the Santiago Court of Appeals dismissed all charges against the three: Paulina de Allende-Salazar and Marcelo Simonetti, reporters with Televisión Nacional De Chile (Chilean state TV), and Emilio Sutherland, of TV Channel 13.

After Channel 13 aired an interview with a woman who said members of the ring had sexually abused her, the outlet was sued by right-wing Senator Javino Novoa, who claimed that the woman’s description of her abusers tarnished his honor, even though he was not named. Novoa asked for 1.85 billion pesos (US$3.25 million) in damages. The case was pending at year’s end.

In response to the scandal and the press coverage of it, at year’s end the Senate was considering a privacy bill that would allow civil and criminal charges to be brought against journalists who “illegitimately interfere” with the privacy of public or private figures and their families. Chilean journalists and press freedom advocates have protested the legislation.

Meanwhile, a bill that would repeal desacato (disrespect) provisions languished in the Senate. The legislation, which the lower Chamber of Deputies approved in late 2003, would amend several articles of the Penal Code and the Code of Military Justice, both of which criminalize insulting the “honor or dignity” of public officials.

Coverage of the Spiniak case also prompted a public debate about journalism ethics, including the use of hidden cameras, the emergence of gossipy, sensationalist news, and the increasing media scrutiny of public officials’ private lives.

Local journalists are also concerned about the extreme concentration of ownership in print media, which decreases pluralism and diversity in the press. Two companies control almost 90 percent of the market. Mercurio owns Chile’s main national daily, El Mercurio (The Mercury), as well as 18 regional papers, the evening paper La Segunda (The Second), the tabloid Las Últimas Noticias (The Latest News), and seven magazines. COPESA owns the daily La Tercera (The Third), the popular daily La Cuarta (The Fourth), the weekly Que Pasa (What’s Going On), a free paper called La Hora (The Hour), and the recently purchased weekly Siete+7 (Seven+7).