Puerto Rico

There have been several recent legal attempts to hinder the work of the press. The police attempted to prevent the publication of case files of arrested persons, saying it could violate their right to privacy and presumption of innocence. The police’s error was to make the decision concerning four political figures involved in a bitter dispute in a public office. A court, upholding a petition filed by journalists, ordered the police chief to hand over the files. But in another court decision concerning the same incident, the court ordered three television stations – Telemundo Canal 2, Televicentro Canal 4 and Univisión Puerto Rico Canal 11 – to hand over to the government its unedited tapes of the incident. It is possible that the tapes will be used as evidence by the prosecution in the trial of the four accused on criminal charges of rebellion. It was the government itself, through its Department of Justice, that called for the unedited tapes and it was the court that ruled in favor of the request. The ruling sets a serous precedent for the government in the future being able to demand the notes of reporters working for the print media or recordings from those working for the broadcast media. The television stations decided not to appeal the order, so as to seek to avert a decision by the Supreme Court which could be used for ideological purposes and to establish a clear and definitive legal precedent. They opted to broadcast the unedited tapes before handing them over. This puts the press in a compromising position, as it violates its independence and puts the interests of the government first. In addition, the ruling could have a chilling effect on news sources who might contact reporters to denounce any wrongdoing, such as corruption of public officials. At the same time, it is ironic that Police Chief Miguel Pereira should invoke the right to privacy of public figures who had been arrested in the same incident but refuse to make photocopies of the arrest orders public. The court, however, acknowledged the news value and ordered they be handed over. Access continues to be denied to United States Navy land on Vieques. News photographers Rafael Enrique Pesquera Morales and Juan Manuel López Mari of the Hostonian National Congress’s online publication redbetances were arrested by the Puerto Rico Police on state land and turned over to military police. Charges of obstruction were dismissed by the state court. In a related matter, Federal Judge José A. Fusté dismissed a charge of obstruction of freedom of expression brought against the United States Navy for using pepper gas against demonstrators and journalists (El Vocero, September 13, October 1, 2002). The Puerto Rico Senate Judicial Committee has taken no action to repeal a law making libel a criminal offense. The legislature continues to have before it the following bills which could impact freedom of the press and access to information: • Senate Bill no. 1599, Law on Access to Public Information (local FOIA) introduced by PPD Senator José Ortiz Dallot, pending consideration by the Government Committee. Press organizations oppose this bill, which contains provisions that could permit government agencies to hinder the work of the press. • House Bill no. 878, declares as a matter of public policy that all documents prepared by the Puerto Rico Police Intelligence Division, solely and exclusively for political and ideological beliefs or tendencies, that have not been claimed have historic value, would prohibit their destruction and create a commission to determine the documents’ final destination. The bill is now before the House of Representatives Government Committee. • Senate Bill no. 1483, to amend a civil procedure rule to change the requirement that publication of government edicts be in a daily general circulation newspaper to publication in a general circulation newspaper, be it monthly, bi-monthly, fortnightly, weekly or daily. Still stalled in the Senate is a bill to restore to the press access to court records in divorce and other family matter cases. Gov. Sila Calderón signed into law five measures proposed by the Senate to outlaw graphic sexual content in television programs and pornographic videos. The legislation has been criticized by the movie and broadcast industry, citing a constitutional right to freedom of expression. Senate President Antonio Fas Alzamora refused but then was required to hand over the list of members of that legislative body, being reminded that it is a public document. The Circuit Appeals Court set aside a censorship order obtained by the Department of the Family to prevent the broadcast of a television program, “Al grano con Zervigón” (To the Point with Zervigón), concerning the case of a minor who had run away from a foster home. The court held that the right to free speech and press freedom shelters the work of a journalist. Former governor Pedro Roselló launched an attack on the press for its coverage concerning the purchase of a luxury residence in Virginia that belonged to a lawyer in a U.S. law firm providing services to his administration. He also accused state attorney Guillermo Gil, the government of Puerto Rico and the Ferré-Rangel Group – the family company that owns El Nuevo Día and Primera Hora – of conspiring to accuse him of unlawful activity. He made these accusations as various cases of alleged corruption involving members of his administration were being heard in court. Primera Hora reporter Rosita Marrero was threatened by a person identifying himself as the father of a defendant during a recess in a court hearing in a federal case on an attack on the Editorial Fernández publishing company. Puppeteer Antulio Santa Rosa, known as “Kobbo,” who handles a puppet called La Comay is the subject of a libel suit filed by the former husband of the governor. Santa Rosa, host of a show featuring gossip and rumors on Televicentro Canal 4, says he is protected by the right to free speech and press freedom. Alexis Morales, a freelance reporter and publisher of a local newspaper, was arrested and jailed over a holiday weekend this summer as he was investigating acts of vandalism in a public school.