URUGUAY

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Press freedom has suffered a serious setback during this period as a result of a rash of court rulings and attacks by the administration of President Tabaré Vázquez. President Vázquez stated on March 22 at the headquarters of the journalists’ union that “the primary obligation of journalism and journalists is to the truth, and their primary loyalty is not to any government, but to all the people.” However, in June the president called nine media outlets (including three IAPA-member newspapers) “political actors” that are part of the “opposition,” as a way of weakening and discrediting them in the eyes of the public. This led senior government officials to attack these media outlets by attempting to suppress news or opinions unfavorable to the administration. In September, the government agency in charge of policies on children “planted” a “complaint” from an anonymous person against a journalist, accusing him and his wife, also a journalist, of abusing their 6-year-old son. The “complaint,” which the agency refused to give to the journalist, was “planted” by the “ghost accuser” after the publication of a news story about officials of the agency that caused a commotion among journalists and legislators. The journalist now has to prove his innocence of a charge brought by the government from an unknown person whom the state has not identified and based on a complaint he is not allowed to see. These attacks on the press by the upper echelons of the executive branch led Senator Jorge Larrañaga (president of the National Party, which leads the opposition) to compare President Vázquez to his colleagues from Argentina (Néstor Kirchner) and Venezuela (Hugo Chávez). In August the Supreme Court overturned an appeals court ruling and reinstated the five-month prison sentence of a journalist who in 2004 had reported on alleged acts of corruption in the government of Paysandú department (350 kilometers northwest of Montevideo). The Supreme Court, ignoring prior rulings over 20 years, ruled that criminal defamation laws place a limit on freedom of speech and, therefore, on freedom of the press. The court found that reporter Carlos Dogliani had carried out “criminal behavior” and that it is irrelevant whether a journalist’s reported statements are true or not because the only issue at hand is whether someone’s reputation has been damaged. The court held that the crime of defamation is committed even if the aggrieved party has been convicted for the actions attributed to him or her. During this period the Senate approved the treaty between the governments of Uruguay and Venezuela to form the international television network Telesur. One of the network’s executives said in Montevideo that they were in talks with the administration of Tabaré Vázquez to set up a news center for the network in Uruguay. The abduction and torture of journalist Marcelo Bornat on October 17 and 18, 2005 remains unsolved. Neither the police nor the justice system has made any progress in the case. Other significant developments during the last six months: On March 23, opposition members of the Montevideo Department Council stated that the government of the capital city, held by the Broad Front coalition, uses arbitrary discretion in placing government advertising in the newspapers Voces del Frente and La República, both of which are linked to the ruling coalition. On March 26 Eduardo Preve, a reporter for Saeta Televisión Canal 10 and Radio Sarandí, reported to the police that someone had stolen his car, along with documents on cooperation between the Chilean and Uruguayan militaries to allow people involved in human rights violations in Chile to hide in Uruguay. The case is still unsolved. Livestock Minister José Mujica, leader of the strongest faction of the ruling Broad Front coalition, attacked journalists by claiming that they keep “people submerged in idiotic nonsense” and that they make matters that are neither urgent nor relevant seem essential, thereby distracting people away from “fundamental issues.” On May 18 a criminal court judge handed down a suspended sentence of three months in prison to journalist Gustavo Escanlar, finding him guilty of libel. The ruling stemmed from a complaint by media owner Federico Fasano of La República newspaper, the AM Libre and FM Libre radio stations, and the cable television channel TV Libre. Fasano said he had felt offended by harsh criticism leveled against him by Escanlar on January 18 on the program “La culpa es nuestra” (It’s Our Fault) on Saeta Televisión Canal 10. On June 2 the administration publicly committed to begin setting objective rules for the placement of government advertising, after admitting that in previous administrations there had been excessive spending and a lack of technical criteria for advertising space purchased by the government in the media. On June 30 Judge Hugo Burella in the department of San José dismissed a petition for an injunction filed by journalist David Rabinovich, editor of the newspaper San José Hoy, who was seeking the records of the Budget Committee of the Department Council. Rabinovich sought the injunction after requesting the records, even though they should be in the public domain because they reflect deliberations by department representatives on matters of public interest. On July 4 the journalists’ union APU and the Uruguayan Judges Association questioned a measure by the Ministry of Education and Culture restricting prosecutors’ freedom to speak about their decisions. The APU says this restriction “directly harms journalists’ right to inform the people” because it “restricts the public’s access to information and court proceedings that are of general interest to society.” On August 15 Álvaro Riva, editor of the newspaper El Heraldo in Florida (98 kilometers north of Montevideo), asked the Supreme Court to issue a ruling to prevent him from being tried twice for defamation. The current “press law” in Uruguay allows people who feel offended by press writings to re-file criminal complaints against journalists, even after prosecutors and the courts have quashed the case at the trial level. Riva says in his petition the law is unconstitutional because it allows journalists to be prosecuted repeatedly or convicted despite previously having the charges against them dismissed. On August 29, the Board of Directors of the Uruguayan Children’s Institute (INAU), the government agency responsible for public policy affecting children, distributed among its staff members a harsh statement against the press, blaming it for creating a “sense of insecurity” in society. On August 30, Chief of Police José Luis Fagúndez from Tacuarembó filed libel complaints against two journalists that he claimed had damaged his reputation by publishing articles on alleged acts of corruption involving him. The police officer told the court that journalists Miguel Olivera (of the local weekly Acción Informativa) and Victoria Alfaro (of Rumbosur magazine) “have left no doubts” as to their defamatory intentions and that they are displaying “clear contempt by insulting” him because they carried out a “campaign to discredit the chief of police of Tacuarembó.” Olivera said Fagúndez threatened him, and Alfaro said that “in Tacuarembó there is state terrorism, the law of silence prevails, and whoever doesn’t support the police gets branded a traitor.” Chief Fagúndez later withdrew his complaint after the reporters agreed to interview him for his opinions. On September 1, reporter Loreley Nicrosi of the newspaper El País was subpoenaed by the National Police Intelligence Agency to be questioned about her interviews with retired soldiers. The questioning took place three days later. The police asked her whether her contacts with the soldiers were for her work as a journalist, how long she had known them, and how they communicated with each other. On September 7, Foreign Minister Reinaldo Gargajo harshly criticized what he calls the “right-wing press” after Búsqueda reported on a survey commissioned by the Socialist Party, which is led by Gargajo. Survey respondents said the minister has a “poor image” and should “voluntarily” step down. A criminal court judge tried, but did not send to prison, the owner of a Web site (Mipais.com.uy) for illegally selling the complete content of various media outlets without having secured permission from the authors or companies in question. On September 13, soldiers dressed in civilian clothing assaulted, insulted, and threatened a group of reporters covering an event organized to honor the life of retired Col. Juan Antonio Rodríguez Buratti, who had committed suicide three days earlier to avoid going to prison for pending charges of human rights violations during the military dictatorship (1973-1985). On September 16, Public Health Minister María Julia Muñoz said journalists should be “responsible” in dealing with news on health because, she said, they may “alarm the public” and cause “illness, disorder, and death.” The minister—who in 2005 claimed but never proved that there are journalists in Uruguay who meet weekly to “conspire” against the government, calling this alleged group “the axis of evil”—said, “The media should exercise restraint in many situations as they have in dealing with suicide. The authorities are responsible for providing reporters with accurate information, and reporters should be responsible for understanding that news, if alarming, could harm people’s health.” On September 22, Felipe Michelini, deputy minister of education and culture, issued a scathing attack against the weekly Búsqueda. The publication had reported the previous day that presidential secretary Gonzalo Fernández had identified a member of the Argentine secret police as the one who murdered Uruguayan Parliament members Zelmar Michelini and Héctor Gutiérrez Ruiz in Buenos Aires in 1976. At the end of September, Alfonso Lessa, host of the news program “Telemundo” on Channel 12, received an e-mail message from a low level army officer who did not identify himself. The officer said he could kill Lessa with one shot. The threat was a response to a commentary the journalist had made on the news show about the internal situation of the Uruguayan armed forces after several military people were sent to prison for human rights violations during the last dictatorship (1973-1985). Lessa, who reported the incident to the IAPA, received the threat in an e-mail from a relative of a military person.

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