The exercise of press freedom has become increasingly difficult in the past six months because of actions against reporters and media outlets for writing about sensitive topics, the persistence and escalation of public government pressure in an effort to distort the news, and an increase in lawsuits. On the other hand, the good news was an improvement in the general outlook: After more than 70 years of insistent demands by the IAPA and other organizations, the executive branch sent Congress a bill that, if approved, would decriminalize the offenses of defamation and “injuria,” or insult, which, until now, were punished by prison sentences. The daughter of a journalist Ricardo Aldabe was shot at because of news her father had reported; three reporters (William Pérez, Luis Carlos Cotelo and Marlene Vaz) received death threats for reporting on sensitive news, a high government official threatened to challenge two journalists (Iván Kirichenko and Ismael Grau) to a duel for news he did not like and photographer Nicolás Celaya was arrested by police while on assignment. One flagrant retaliation was the decision of Banco de la República to suspend advertising in the weekly Búsqueda after it published an investigation about the cancelation of a debt that Vice President Rodolfo Nin Novoa had with the bank, which permitted the lifting of an embargo that had been pending for 13 years, right after he took office in 2005. The state bank had ordered the advertising on April 11, but it was suspended on May 8 after the investigative project was published. Bank president Fernando Calloia admitted in Parliament that the bank had decided to change the criteria for purchasing advertising because of “conflicts” that had arisen. On August 6, Calloia said that when managers of a government agency handling public funds feel “in conflict” with a media outlet they should not advertise in it to avoid the appearance that they are trying to influence the company to suspend the investigation. The “Calloia doctrine” is still in effect and at this time Búsqueda is still being sanctioned by the bank. Other media outlets still have bank advertising. The legislation that makes the crimes desacato (contempt of a public official,) defamation and injuria (insult) and others subject to jail sentences is still in effect. But during the last week of September the government sent to Parliament a bill to decriminalize these crimes when it is a matter of pubic interest and to introduce the concept of “actual malice” as a guideline to evaluate the publication of a news story that any citizen considers harmful. The bill was praised by the World Press Freedom Committee because of the progress its approval would represent, but also criticized it because it still has some obstacles to press freedom, such as desacato, the retention of the “burden of proof” on the defendant rather than the plaintiff and the so-called right of reply. In the past six months, seven journalists (Marlene Vaz, Ana María Mizrahi, Alvaro Alfonso, Luis Alberto Giovanoni, Gabriel Pereyra, Norberto Costabel and Roger Rodríguez) were put on trial for publishing news and opinions, and two of them (Vaz and Costabel) were given suspended prison sentences. In one of these cases, brought by a leader of the governing Communist Party because of the content of a book written by Alfonso, Prosecutor Ana María Tellechea suggested that books and the Internet cannot be considered “mass communications,” under Uruguayan law. She proposed to the judge that the journalist be tried for defamation and injuria outside the protection of the “press law” leaving open the possibility of preventive detention. In her legal pleadings the prosecutor wrote that it was necessary to “clarify” if a book can be considered a “communication medium,” and concluded, after her analysis, that it is not, just as the Internet could not be considered a “mass communication medium.” In addition, the defense of Carlos Dogliani, who accused the Uruguayan government in March 2007 of violations of press freedom before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, warned that negotiations with the executive branch about the case are “stalled” and asked it to take measures to speed up the government’s decisions. Dogliani was given a five-month suspended sentence for defamation and insult (injuria) after reporting in 2004 that a former mayor had allowed a rancher to cancel a $322,000 debt with the government, and pay only $30,000. The journalist’s sentence was upheld in September of 2006 by the Supreme Court, which ruled that “it is not important if the fact is true,” but simply if there is the “possibility of damaging someone’s reputation.” There was also an increase in lawsuits against media outlets, journalists, publishing houses and documentary filmmakers, for huge amounts that in some cases endanger the viability of some journalistic organizations. There were six lawsuits for more than $1 million against Ana María Mizrahi and Jorge Scagni, the daily Visión Ciudadana of San José (93 kilometers northeast of Montevideo), the weekly Búsqueda of Montevideo, Saeta TV Canal 10, filmmaker Federico González and publisher Fin de Siglo for publishing a book by Senator Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro of the governing party. The lawsuit against the weekly Búsqueda for $400,000 was brought by a former senator and leader of the governing Frente Amplio, with the stated purpose of forcing the publication to close. The senator, whose own political caucus forced him to resign from the Senate because he had surgery in a state hospital using a low-income health card, was publicly supported on Monday, October 6, during a session in the official residence by President Tabaré Vasquez. Freedom of information seemed to move forward with the Senate’s approval of a bill on July 17. But the bill, which has not yet been considered in the Chamber of Deputies, gives state agencies wide “exceptions” that negate this right and many specialists say that rather than improving the situation the law makes it worse. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights urged the government to support journalist David Rabinovich’s right to obtain information of public interest, but this never happened. The Interior Ministry discriminated against a journalist considered “of the opposition” (Alvaro Alfonso) refusing to give him information that had been provided earlier to investigators hired by the government. Two courts made contradictory rulings about this right, one guaranteeing it and the other denying it. On March 24 a law went into effect prohibiting publication of advertising and promotion of tobacco products in all media except the Internet. Also, the press reported that Health Minister Julia Muñoz, of the ruling Frente Amplio, said at a workshop that it was necessary to have “legal instruments” requiring the media to set aside space for “topics to promote and protect the health of the population.” As has been his custom since he was inaugurated in 2005, the government of President Tabaré Vázquez, harassed the press through his spokesmen, sometimes with moral and ethical condemnations because of the publication of news that those in power did not like. This time the press critics were Vice President Rodolfo Nin Novoa, cabinet minister Daysi Tourné (Interior), José Bayardí (Defense), Danilo Astori (Economy) and María Simon (Education and Culture) as well as pro-government legislators Esteban Pérez, Jorge Orrico and Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro; Fernando Calloia, president of the Banco del a República; and the Uruguayan ambassador to Venezuela, Gerónimo Cardozo. Opposition legislator Carlos Mazzulo also pressured the media. The official criticisms referred frequently to supposed “press campaigns” to “discredit” and “damage” democratic institutions, as well as insults such as “sell-out,” “liars,” “immoral,” “trash,” “frivolous,” “anti-ethical garbage,” “filth” and “cads.” They were also accused of establishing an “agenda of fear” in the news. These and other important events during this period are described below. At the end of March, more than 400 “community radio stations” were registered in a census organized by the state Unit to Regulate Communications Services (URSEC), as the first step in the normalization of these stations. Of the stations registered, 118 are in the capital Montevideo and 295 outside the capital. According to a law approved in 2007, the government recognizes as “community radio stations” those “nongovernment public interest broadcast services “provided by nonprofit associations with legal standing or by groups of individuals who are not seeking profit (…) with the goal of statisfying the needs of social communication and providing the exercise of the right to information and freedom of expression of the country’s residents.” Nevertheless, a group of 20 “community” radio stations organized in the umbrella organization Ecos complained that the law “is a way to limit freedom of expression” because it gives the executive branch discretion to assign frequencies and “attempts to manipulate and control content.” On March 29, an attempt was made to kill the daughter of Ricardo Aldabe of Tacuarembó (390 kilometers north of Montevideo) after he reported about alleged irregularities in a business owned by one of the attackers. Early in the morning a man approached the home of Aldabe of Radio Tacuarembó and shot his .38-caliber revolver three times at Viviana Aldabe who miraculously survived. Six days later a judge in Tacuarembó sentenced the perpetrators--José Enrique Navarro (assistant police chief en Tacuarembó), Marcelo Heredia (a Montevideo policeman), and civilian Christian Marcelo Marquez--to jail. Navarro was identified as the perpetrator, Heredia as the mastermind and Marquez as an accomplice after the fact. The journalist had reported in his program about “irregularities” in a dance hall called Black Jack that was owned by Navarro. On April 8 Marlene Vaz, editor of the weekly Opción Cero in Melo, 387 kilometers northeast of Montevideo, was told that she would be killed if she did not retract a report she had published about the robbery in a police precinct of a shipment of sports shoes that had been confiscated after being smuggled into Uruguay. On April 9, Luis Elisburu, host of the program Sin Censura TV broadcast by the cable channels of Trinidad, 188 kilometers north of Montevideo, said he was pressured for reporting on alleged irregularities by the former governor of Flores province, Carlos Mazzulo. On April 10, Esteban Pérez, a legislator of the ruling party, accused journalist Ernesto Tulbovitz of the weekly Búsqueda of practicing “trash journalism,” “lying,” and damaging democracy after he published statements that Pérez himself had harshly challenged the justices of the Supreme Court for a decision he did not like. On May 5, the Interior Ministry rejected a request of Alvaro Alfonso for access to files of the Communist Party of Uruguay (PCU) for research he was doing for a book. The ministry said it was the “owner” of the information and that it could not provide it to third parties without the authorization of those involved. On May 8, the state Banco de la República del Uruguay (BROU) formally informed the weekly Búsqueda that an advertising order it had placed on April 11 was cancelled in reprisal for the publication of an investigation about the controversial forgiveness of a debt of more than $100,000 for Vice President Rodolfo Nin Novoa. On May 14, journalist Ana María Mizrahi, host of the program La Noticia y Su Contexo, testified in criminal court after having been accused of defamation by a niece of former dictator Gregorio Alvarez. Mizrahi had interviewed a former Tupamaro guerrilla on May 9, and during the program he confessed that he had belonged to a group that assassinated Col. Artigas Alvarez, a brother of the former dictator. Artigas Alvarez´s daughter, Celeste Alvarez, sued the former guerrilla, José Luis Rodríquez, for defamation and also asked that the state channel and the journalist also be charged, saying that the news should not have been broadcast. On May 22, Senator Alberto Breccia of the government party, who was named to head the Unit to Regulate Communications Services (URSEC), announced that he would be exercise “stricter control” with the state television channel, directed by his sister, Sonia Breccia. The senator said the “direct family relationship” with his sister does not prevent him according to the law from holding the job. He added, however: “Those who know me know that I am much stricter in handling things in which it might appear that I have some interest than in those things in which I have no real or apparent interest. Norberto Costabel, the editor of the weekly Noticias of Colonia, 177 kilometers west of Montevideo, was given a suspended prison sentence for defamation after the newspaper published an article warning readers that a former employee was charging for subscriptions to the publication even though he no longer worked for it. On June 7 the writer and director of a documentary about people accused of pretending to be journalists in order to attend news conferences and other meetings to get free food, was sued for $150,000 for alleged “damage to their good name” and “violation of privacy.” The plaintiffs, known to reporters as “perejiles” (free loaders), alleged that they really are journalists. The writer and director of the documentary, Federico González, screened it May 23 for 800 people, most of them linked to the media. In August, the plaintiffs reached a settlement with the filmmaker and agreed that the film could be shown if it included a “right of reply” and if they receive a percentage of its receipts. On June 17, the Education and Culture Ministry sent the president’s office a bill to decriminalize the publication of news and opinion of general interest, to permit the defense of truth for communication offenses when the information is of “public interest,” to revoke the crime of offending a foreign chief of state and to introduce the doctrine of “actual malice” as a legal guideline for judges assessing the publication of information that any citizen might consider libelous. The proposal, however, keeps the “right of reply” and does not revoke the crime of desacato, for those who undermine the authority of public officials. The executive branch sent the bill to Parliament the last week of September. On July 12, Miguel Moreira, assistant police chief of Salto, 496 kilometers northeast of Montevideo, presented a criminal charge for defamation and injuria against Luis Alberto Giovanoni, news director of Radio Arapey, host of the television program “Entre Dos Fuegos” and editor of the local daily El Pueblo. Moreira said that Giovanoni had defamed him when he mentioned in an article the officer’s criminal record. He had been tried for covering up the homicide of a smuggler in 1998. Less than a month later, Judge Beatriz Larrieux acquitted the journalist, saying: “there was no misuse of freedom of expression.” On July 20, William Pérez of Radio Continental in Pando, 37 kilometers northeast of Montevideo, reported that he and his wife received death threats after he reported that 60 of the 124 city council members in Canelones department received reimbursement for gasoline although they did not have personal vehicles. On July 26, a photographer for the pro-government daily La República was detained while trying to photograph a police operation before a basketball game in Montevideo. He was taken to the police station and accused of failure to respect a public authority. A judge who heard the case dismissed the charge and released the photographer and his driver. On August 2, the executive branch began an offensive against the media for its coverage of police news in light of the increase in concern about public safety. Interior Minister Daysi Tourné said the press was trying to impose what she called “an agenda of fear” and urged journalists to ask themselves, “what is your responsibility in news.” The next day Tourné raised the stakes. “Stimulating an agenda of fear is not good for democracy,” she said in the daily El País. On August 27, four officials of Parliament presented a criminal charge of defamation against Gabriel Pereyra of the daily El Observador, who had written an opinion column five days earlier in which he described a series of benefits that employees of the Chamber of Deputies have as “institutionalized corruption.” The Senate employees are now demanding the same benefits. On September 5, government legislator Carlos Varela, president of a legislative committee investigating the management of public enterprises from 2000 to 2005, reported that in the years 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003 the weekly Patria, which supports the political group of former president Luis Alberto Lacalle of the Partido Nacional, received more than $70,000 from the state fuel company ANCAP without having published a single one of the advertisements. On September 18, Luis Carlos Cotelo of Radio Nacional of Montevideo reported to the police that he had received several death threats for comments he had made on the air. The reporter said he had received e-mail messages from a person who said he knew exactly when Cotelo arrived at the radio station in a taxi and even where he had bought a specific object. On September 22, former government senator and current Frente Amplio leader Leonardo Nicolini sued the weekly Búsqueda for $340,000 more than a year and a half after the publication had reported that in December of 2006 he had surgery in a state hospital using a “low-income card.” Nicolini was forced to step down by his colleagues, who already knew the information, after the news was published. The former senator, who belongs to the group led by former Tupamaro guerrilla Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro (the second senator of the ruling Frente Amplio) had announced in August that he would sue Búsqueda with the express purpose of causing the closure of the weekly.