1998 Press Freedom Awards -Gorriti

International Press Freedom Awards

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Gustavo Gorriti
La Prensa
No one exemplifies the remarkable transformation of Latin American journalism better than Gustavo Gorriti. During the 1980s, Gorriti made his name as a war correspondent, hiking along jungle trails to report on the brutal conflict in his native Peru. Today, with the guns quiet, he spends his time poring over bank records and court documents to expose corruption and malfeasance in his adopted home, Panama.

Through it all, Gorriti has shown himself a master of self-defense — as befits the six-time Peruvian national judo champion. In 1992, when a commando unit armed with silencer-equipped weapons broke into his Lima home and secretly hauled him away to the army’s Intelligence Service compound, Gorriti’s wife put into action a plan they had worked out in advance. She quickly notified U.S. government officials and international press freedom organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, about his disappearance. The rapid response that ensued probably saved Gorriti’s life.

In Panama Gorriti has relied on international law and his skills as a journalist to defend himself against a campaign of legal harassment. After being forced to leave Peru in 1992, Gorriti joined the staff of the Panama City daily La Prensa one of Latin America’s leading newspapers. Soon after he arrived in 1996, Gorriti produced a series of articles documenting how Colombian drug traffickers with close ties to the Panamanian government were using banks to launder money. He also found that a major trafficker with close ties to the Cali drug cartel had made a US$51,000 contribution to President Ernesto Pérez Balladares’ campaign fund.

Angered by Gorriti’s reports, the government announced on August 5, 1997, that it would not renew his work visa and ordered him to leave Panama by August 28. Gorriti responded with a full-scale legal and communications onslaught: He filed suits in Panamanian courts and asked for the intervention of the Inter American Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States. He wrote op-eds for The New York Times and Newsweek. He was profiled in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and on National Public Radio.

Facing international condemnation, the Panamanian government was forced to back down. On October 14, 1997, Gorriti’s work visa was extended for another year.

But Gorriti’s travails were not over. Just before the government had announced its intention of expelling him from Panama, Gorriti and fellow reporter Rolando Rodrguez reported that a company that had been accused of being a front for drug traffickers in Panama had made a US$5,000 contribution to the 1994 congressional campaign of José Antonio Sossa, who is currently Panama’s attorney general. Sossa is now prosecuting Gorriti and Rodrguez for criminal defamation. At one point during the course of the proceedings against them, Gorriti and Rodrguez were barred from leaving Panama and ordered to report to a judge every 30 days.

Throughout his long and varied career, Gorriti, 50, has distinguished himself not only as Latin America’s top investigative reporter, but also as an uncompromising advocate for press freedom.