Chilean police officer strikes photographer

New York, May 23, 2008—Chilean photographer Víctor Salas suffered a serious eye injury on Wednesday when he was struck by a police officer as he was covering a protest outside parliament in the southwestern city of Valparaíso. The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the assault and called on Chilean authorities to hold the officer accountable.

Salas, an award-winning photographer for the Spanish news agency EFE, was among a group of photographers taking pictures of the protests when an officer on horseback struck Salas in the face with a whip, injuring him in the right eye, according to press reports and a CPJ source. Colleagues came to the aid of Salas, who was taken to a clinic specialized in ophthalmology in the nearby city of Viña María, according to local press reports. The photographer was transferred on Thursday to a hospital in Santiago, where he underwent surgery. Press reports said doctors don’t yet know the extent of his injuries.

Thousands of protesters, mainly students and mining workers, participated in Wednesday’s protests, which came as President Michelle Bachelet addressed parliament. Students were seeking education reforms and increased funding, while workers were seeking labor union reforms, according to the English-language Valparaíso Times. Violent clashes erupted when demonstrators attempted to break through a security perimeter. The Spanish daily El País said at least 50 people were injured.

An EFE source said the agency has notified Chilean authorities about the attack and said that Salas plans to file a formal complaint. A representative of the Ministry of Interior informed EFE that an investigation into the incident had begun.

“The attack against Víctor Salas is unacceptable. We call on authorities to conduct a thorough, independent, and timely investigation, and to publish their findings” said CPJ Senior Americas Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría. “Chilean police have previously attacked reporters who were doing their job, and it is important for authorities to put an immediate stop to this behavior.”

In May 2006, six Chilean reporters were attacked by local police while covering clashes between security forces and high school students during a massive strike demanding reforms in Chile’s education laws. Following the incident, Bachelet said that press freedom would be respected in Chile, while other government officials called the attacks “unjustifiable” and “unacceptable.”