Puerto Rico

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PUERTO RICO There have been developments that threaten freedom of the press in Puerto Rico and illustrate a dangerous pattern in which the government persists in its aim of manipulating the media. As reported in March, the newspaper El Nuevo Dia brought a suit in Federal Court in San Juan against the governor of Puerto Rico and seven officials of his administration, charging them with the violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and of several civil rights. Both legal measures apply in Puerto Rico because of its Commonwealth status. The case is in the discovery stage. Federal ]udge Jose A. Fuste has set May 19, 1999 as the trial date. Since the policy of the administration of Governor Pedro Rosselló is to hinder the journalism work of El Nuevo Día, it was necessary in recent months for the newspaper to bring suit in Superior Court against three government agencies: the Department of Education, the National Development Bank and the Education Foundation for the Free Selection of Schools. These entities had declined to provide documents to the newspaper. After several visits, the court ordered different government offices to grant free access to requested documentation. In addition, a further 13 government offices rejected the newspaper's requests for public documents. In an English-language form letter these agencies explain their rejection by citing, among other reasons, the federal lawsuit brought by El Nuevo Día. A government strategy is to use the provision of information as a way to either punish or reward news media by applying pressure or granting favors. In this context, the daily El Vocero sued The San Juan Star on grounds of unfair competition. The suit, which involves four officials and various government institutions, alleges the Puerto Rican government is subsidizing The San Juan Starthrough favoritism in placement of advertising space for official announcements and preferential treatment in the collection of the paper's debts with different government agencies. The El Vocero suit specifies that The San Juan Star owes large sums to the Departments of the Treasury and Labor and adds that the Department of State has not sanctioned the daily even though its incorporation certificate has expired. In addition, the suit alleges that the commissioner of financial institutions, who regulates the banking industry, instructed banks to publish their announcements in The San Juan Star. The suit includes the sworn testimony of an El Vocero advertising salesman who testified that an official in the commissioner's office had told him about these instructions. The suit also involves the secretary of education. It cites the supposed donation by The San Juan Star of copies of its newspaper to public schools for educational purposes. In fact the Department of Education actually paid $300,000 for this. In July, a compromising letter was brought to light. Written by Alfredo Gouchet - an adviser to The San Juan Star and the former director of the government's Communication Office - the letter requests that Interior Secretary Angel Morey intervene to boost the placement of official advertising in the Star. He points out that he "managed to convince" the president of the newspaper to adopt editorial positions favorable to the government. It is evident that the sending of the letter was based on the premise that it could be considered at high levels of the government, even if Secretary Morey said that "letters like these are received every day" and Gerry Angulo, the president of The San Juan, revoked Gouchet's authorization to speak for the paper. Through September 1998 the advertising of the central government in print media totaled $13,456,712, distributed as such in percentage terms: El Vocero, 51%; The San Juan Star, 27%; and regional newspapers 15%. The exclusion of government advertising in El Nuevo Dia since April 1997 also affects its sister publication, Primera Hora. In other developments, journalists covering a telephone workers'strike were harassed. In one incident, two police cars sprayed irritating matter on a group of seven news photographers in an open bid to impair their work. At the end of the strike, and paradoxically during the Week of the Press, more than five journalists were assaulted by members of the telephone workers' union while they were covering the assembly of workers called to end the conflict. The workers had gone on strike to prevent the sale of the stateowned telephone company to private companies. Later on, Manny Suarez, a veteran and respected reporter for the San Juan Star, sued Gerry Angulo, the president of the paper. Alleging that Angulo acted in concert with government officials, Suarez said that he had suffered politically motivated retaliation, which violated his civil rights, including freedom of expression. As part of an understanding between the government and Angulo, Suarez said he was excluded from attending press conferences on political affairs and federal court cases in San Juan involving the government. His lawsuit includes copies of Angulo's letter to the heads of government agencies, requesting more advertising and how much money was expected to be received. The suit also includes a letter by Angulo to Pedro Rosario Urdaz, the government press secretary, in which a copy of his letters to agency chiefs is attached. On October 19, a sixth daily, El Mundo, began publishing in Puerto Rico. It belongs to the El Vocero group.

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