Attacks and threats against journalists increased considerably in 2004, reversing a decline that had followed Alejandro Toledo’s accession to the presidency in 2001. And while Peruvian journalists generally work freely, several have been prosecuted on criminal defamation charges.
The embattled Toledo, a highly unpopular leader whose term ends in July 2006, has faced several political crises, and his Cabinet has been reshuffled several times. Several of his ministers have resigned over allegations of influence peddling, nepotism, and malfeasance. Alleged wrongdoing and ethical violations by Toledo’s relatives and government officials have supplied the media with an endless stream of scandals.
The government has been criticized for its perceived intolerance and demands for more favorable press coverage. In many cases, government officials have responded to reports of corruption with threats of criminal defamation lawsuits and judicial investigations. In October, immediately after the TV news program “Cuarto Poder” (Fourth Estate) aired a story linking Toledo to the forgery of thousands of signatures needed to register his political party for the 2000 elections, the president phoned program host Carlos Espá on air, called him a “coward,” and labeled his program “gutter journalism.” A few days later, Espá and two other news editors at the privately owned América Televisión, which broadcasts “Cuarto Poder,” resigned, claiming that the station’s owners had asked them, at Toledo’s request, to offer him a public apology. They also accused the government of pressuring “Cuarto Poder” to alter its news coverage. Both the government and the station’s owners denied the allegation. Many journalists and editorial pages criticized both Toledo’s outburst and the “Cuarto Poder” report, which was seen as flawed because it was poorly edited, presented out of context, and did not prove its accusations.
Toledo and other government officials blamed the many scandals and allegations of impropriety that have besieged their administration on a “mafia” led by former President Alberto Fujimori and his former intelligence adviser and right-hand man, Vladimiro Montesinos.
Toledo’s complaints are not completely unfounded. During Fujimori’s rule, the government bribed several media outlets for favorable coverage, which has eroded the public’s confidence in the press. And some news organizations, directly or indirectly, continue to support the authoritarian and corrupt Fujimori, who ran Peru for a decade until he fled to Japan in 2000. These media often published harsh, gratuitous attacks against Toledo in 2004. From his prison cell at a naval base near Lima, Montesinos is said to help dictate the news coverage of pro-Fujimori papers.
To ensure pro-Fujimori coverage while he was in power, some media owners were extorted as well as enticed with million-dollar bribes, tax incentives, and government advertising. In June 2004, the brothers Samuel and Mendel Winter, part-owners of the TV channel Frecuencia Latina, were convicted in connection with the media bribery scandal on charges of embezzlement and conspiracy to commit crimes. Three other media owners who fled the country in 2001 were being tried in absentia in the same case. Several tabloid owners charged with embezzlement in 2001 were also on trial. In 2000, all of these media owners had agreed to ensure that their outlets supported Fujimori’s campaign for a third presidential term, which was widely considered unconstitutional.
In April, businessman Fernando Zevallos brought a criminal defamation lawsuit against the owners of the Lima daily El Comercio (The Commerce) and the paper’s investigative journalists who wrote articles linking Zevallos—founder, former owner, and corporate adviser to the Lima-based AeroContinente airlines—to drug traffickers. Zevallos also requested US$100 million in damages in a parallel civil lawsuit against the newspaper.
The international and Peruvian media have long linked Zevallos to drug trafficking and money laundering. In 2001, he faced charges in Peru for complicity with drug traffickers, but he was acquitted in 2002 for lack of evidence. At year’s end, he was on trial on charges of drug trafficking. In 2003, the Supreme Court of Justice ordered a retrial because judges had not considered all the relevant evidence during the first trial. Early in 2004, U.S. immigration authorities banned Zevallos from re-entering the United States, where he has a home in Miami, Fla. In June, the Bush administration identified Zevallos as a “significant foreign narcotics trafficker,” meaning that U.S. businesses and individuals are prohibited from conducting business with him or his interests. However, U.S. officials have not sought his extradition. In November, the Treasury Department added AeroContinente’s successor company, Nuevo Continente, to a list of entities suspected of links to drug trafficking.
The Associated Press, citing a recently uncovered transcript of the secret trial of an alleged member of the Shining Path Maoist guerrilla movement who was convicted in 1993 for the 1989 murder of Tampa Tribune reporter Todd Carper Smith, reported in December that a police intelligence report identified Zevallos as one of the masterminds behind Smith’s killing. According to local reports, drug traffickers mistook Smith for a U.S. drug enforcement agent and ordered the Shining Path to abduct and execute him. Smith was in Peru on a working vacation to write about the Maoist guerrillas.
Attacks and threats against journalists increased in 2004, particularly in Peru’s interior. After more than a decade in which no journalists were killed in the country for their work, Antonio de la Torre Echeandía, a radio host in the city of Yungay in the northern region of Ancash, was murdered in February. He was a harsh critic of former friend and Yungay Mayor Amaro León, whom he accused of nepotism and corruption. In March, a court ordered León and his daughter detained on charges of masterminding de la Torre’s murder with the intent to silence the journalist.
In April, an unidentified gunman killed Alberto Rivera Fernández, the host of a radio show and a political activist in the city of Pucallpa in eastern Ucayali Region. He also served as president of a local journalists association and owned a glass store. A former politician, Rivera was an outspoken and controversial commentator known for his sharp criticism of local and regional authorities. Four suspects in his murder remained jailed at year’s end and had not been formally charged. Local authorities had not determined the motives behind his murder. CPJ is investigating whether Rivera’s killing was related to his journalistic work.