Attacks on the Press 2005: Peru


Attacks and threats against the press, particularly in Peru’s interior,
continued a disturbing upward trend that began in 2004. After lessening in frequency and severity after President Alberto Fujimori fled office in 2000, assaults on journalists were reported regularly in 2005. The Lima-based press freedom organization Instituto Prensa y Sociedad, considered the authoritative local source, documented 19 attacks in the first nine months of 2005 alone. CPJ’s analysis found that most of these were carried out by peasant and worker groups, protesters, security guards, businessmen, and relatives of government officials whose actions were scrutinized by the press. The threat was fundamentally different from the government-sponsored attacks that marked the Fujimori era.

Authorities in two different regions moved to prosecute local mayors on charges of plotting the murders of journalists in 2004. In December, Yungay Mayor Amaro León and two accomplices were convicted in the 2004 slaying of Antonio de la Torre Echeandía, a radio host who had criticized the mayor for alleged corruption. A judge in the northern region of Ancash sentenced the defendants to 17 years in prison.

Also in November, an appellate court found sufficient evidence to try Pucallpa Mayor Luis Valdez Villacorta on charges of ordering the April 2004 murder of radio host Alberto Rivera Fernández. A political activist and president of the local journalists association in the city in the eastern Ucayali region, Rivera had accused the mayor of involvement in drug trafficking. Six other men were being held pending trial; two of the defendants were said to have implicated Valdez as the mastermind.

Although journalists in Peru are free to work without government restrictions, a number were targeted with criminal defamation lawsuits designed to punish and silence them. Over the last several years, CPJ has documented a pattern of government officials and business people filing such cases. They include a prominent businessman who filed at least three criminal defamation complaints; a ruling party congressman who lodged a similar criminal lawsuit; and an influential government official who responded to published reports of government corruption by threatening to file lawsuits and launch investigations of journalists.

In May 2005, Judge Alfredo Catacora Acevedo found British freelance journalist Sally Bowen guilty of criminal defamation and ordered her and her publisher to pay 10,000 Peruvian soles (US$3,000) to businessman Fernando Zevallos. Catacora also sentenced Bowen to one year of probation and restricted her movements both within and outside of the country. International and local press freedom organizations, including CPJ, protested Bowen’s conviction and denounced the chilling message it sent to all Peruvian journalists.

In June, after finding numerous irregularities in Catacora’s handling of the trial, an appellate court overturned Bowen’s conviction and ordered a retrial before a new judge.

In his criminal complaint, Zevallos said that Bowen, who is based in the capital, Lima, where she has lived for the last 16 years, and co-author Jane Holligan had irreparably harmed his image in their book, “The Imperfect Spy: The Many Lives of Vladimiro Montesinos.” Proceedings were pending against Holligan, who lives in Scotland.

Zevallos’ lawsuit revolved around a single sentence in the 493-page book, which details the activities of now-imprisoned former intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos. The book quotes an imprisoned U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration informant as saying Zevallos was a drug trafficker with close ties to Montesinos.

Catacora, in reaching his now-defunct verdict, said Zevallos had never been convicted of a crime. Zevallos, founder of the former AeroContinente airline, has denied drug trafficking allegations, although official accusations have dogged him for years. Drug trafficking charges against him were pending in Peru in late 2005; the U.S. government has labeled him a “significant foreign narcotics trafficker” and barred U.S. businesses and individuals from doing business with him.

In May, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida asked Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo to open a new investigation into the 1989 murder of Tampa Tribune reporter Todd Carper Smith. Nelson’s request was prompted by information that emerged in late 2004, including a December 2004 report by The Associated Press that cited a transcript from the secret trial of a Shining Path Maoist guerrilla member convicted of the murder in 1993. The AP, citing the transcript, reported that a police intelligence report had identified Zevallos as an alleged mastermind in the killing.

According to local reports, drug traffickers mistook Smith for a U.S. drug enforcement agent and recruited the Shining Path to abduct and execute him. Smith was in Peru on a working vacation to write about the Maoist guerrillas. Despite Nelson’s request, no new investigation was immediately opened.