Criminal defamation thwarts critical reporting in Ayacucho

When Wilfredo Oscorima, the governor of the southern Peruvian state of Ayacucho, was sentenced in June to five years in prison for official misconduct, independent daily La Calle viewed the ruling as vindication for its vigorous investigations into his administration.

But La Calle has paid a steep price for its critical posture, its owner and editor Esther Valenzuela said. State government advertisements were pulled from the newspaper. Its reporters and editors were smeared as terrorists on social media and hit with criminal defamation complaints filed by the politicians they wrote about. Now Valenzuela has decided to shut down the 22-year-old newspaper.

“It’s a shame, but that’s the reality,” she told CPJ.

The fate of La Calle illustrates the challenges provincial journalists in Peru face when trying to investigate government corruption. Local officials regularly target them and their employers with advertising boycotts and legal action, while rewarding friendly media outlets with advertising, access to meetings and officials, and, in some cases, payoffs for positive coverage, according to Adriana León of the Lima-based Institute for Press and Society (IPYS).

“This is the modus operandi for many politicians,” León told CPJ. “It is very common all over the country.”

In central Ancash state, for example, former governor César Álvarez Aguilar tried to stop investigative reporters over the past four years through accusations of defamation, which remains a criminal offense in Peru. But the journalistic and judicial investigations continued and last year Álvarez was arrested and charged with homicide for being the mastermind in the killing of a political rival.

Journalists in the remote states of Tumbes, Lambayeque, and Loreto have also been targeted by public officials in criminal defamation lawsuits. These states along with Ancash and Ayacucho, have registered the highest levels of government corruption in Peru as well as the highest incidence of government harassment of reporters, according to Zulaina Lainez, president of the Lima-based National Association of Journalists.

“Public officials are the worst enemies of Peruvian journalists,” Lainez told the online publication Número Zero.

That seems to be the case in Ayacucho, which had been the epicenter of the conflict between the Peruvian government and Shining Path rebels that lasted from 1980 to 2000. Back then, the main threat to journalists came from guerrillas who targeted members of the press suspected of collaborating with the army, and government troops who viewed some reporters as rebel spies, Abilio Arroyo, a former Peruvian war correspondent, told CPJ.

In post-war Peru, the region has increased in population and economic activity, and the state government’s budget has expanded more than ten-fold, Carlos Pérez, editor of the Ayacucho political magazine El Tejuelo, told CPJ. He claimed that government oversight is weak and local courts are often packed with appointees loyal to the governor. This combination, Pérez said, opens the door to widespread malfeasance.

However, the news media in Ayacucho–which includes seven television stations, 20 radio stations, six daily newspapers, and three magazines–have largely abdicated the traditional role as government watchdog, Carlos Valdez Medina, a former Associated Press correspondent in Ayacucho, claimed. Many receive the bulk of their income from state advertising which can make them loathe to criticize local officials, Valdez told CPJ.

There are also cases of officials making regular payments to corrupt journalists for favorable coverage as well as reporters extorting politicians, said León, of IPYS, which has a researcher based in Ayacucho. “Some journalists will approach public officials and say: ‘If you don’t pay me every month, I will destroy you,'” she told CPJ.

Two exceptions are La Calle and the Wari radio station which are both owned by Valenzuela. They have called out Oscorima, who made his fortune in the slot machine business before he was elected governor, for irregularities ranging from giving expensive watches to judicial officials to declaring a state of emergency amid heavy rain to grant no-bid contracts.

Julio Castillo, a spokesman for Oscorima, told CPJ that La Calle and Wari backed losing candidates during the 2011 and 2014 gubernatorial elections and claimed that was why they had come out so strongly against his boss. He defended the criminal defamation cases, saying: “Reporters can’t just say whatever they want without any proof.”

Arroyo, the former war correspondent who now runs Ayacucho newspaper Hocicón, added: “Reporters always take sides and that generates a lot of problems.”

In 2013, Valenzuela was convicted of criminal defamation, fined, and handed a suspended jail sentence for alleging that a former governor had mishandled contracts for the construction of a public hospital. She and two other La Calle journalists faced charges of criminal defamation in 2012 for writing about alleged corruption by a state-run rural development agency, but were acquitted.

In addition, the government has accused Valenzuela of environmental violations, claiming that the La Calle printing press makes too much noise. She told CPJ that she has been called in for questioning by the police amid a smear campaign in Ayacucho in which several La Calle reporters were portrayed as Shining Path sympathizers on Facebook and other social media.

Still, their body of work appears to hold up, with some of their reports cited by prosecutors during Oscorima’s trial for embezzlement and malfeasance. Oscorima, who was suspended from his post as governor after his trial, disappeared while awaiting sentencing and is considered a fugitive, according to reports. His lawyer is appealing the conviction.

“The judicial branch confirmed the irregularities that we denounced,” Valenzuela told CPJ. “That gives us a lot of satisfaction.”

But there’s not much time for follow-up stories. Amid diminishing income, rising costs, and ongoing legal battles, Valenzuela told CPJ that the last edition of La Calle will hit the streets on September 4.

[Reporting from Ayacucho, Peru]