Freedom of the press and the unfettered practice of journalism were in general the tone of the last six months, although certain announcements by members of the ruling Frente Amplio party and confusion about President José Mujica’s true position concerning these issues contributed to there being an atmosphere of uncertainty about the path the government will be following. President Mujica declared in plain language that “there is no better press law than the one that does not exist,” but, after receiving criticism from the Frente Amplio warned that he had made this remark “sarcastically.” On another day he acknowledged the “noble task” that he attributed to the press in a democracy, but later said that the press is “a bad thing,” albeit “necessary.” As the National Telecommunications Directorate (Dinatel) moves ahead in preparing a new “media law” to regulate the operations of radio and television stations, private operators began to show signs of concern at the possible effect upon free speech that this planned law might bring about. Uruguayan Vice President Danilo Astori admitted to having “a great fear” regarding any regulation of the matter. Government officials and members of Congress from the ruling party launched isolated verbal attacks against various news media during the period. On the legal front. the Appeals Courts ordered the overturning of a lower court conviction of a journalist, citing new legislation that takes into account case law of the Inter-American Human Rights Court, and threw out a million-dollar civil lawsuit against a news media outlet filed by a former senator of the government party with the objective of shutting it down for lack of funds. At the same time, in a rare decision, a public prosecutor called for the seizure of all copies of a book written by a journalist on the grounds that it contains a phrase harming the reputation of a former lawmaker from a party in government. In general the government has been behaving correctly concerning the handling of public funds in regard to the press, although there were protests over one case in which the state-owned electric company for three years unlawfully benefitted a group of official media to the detriment of others. The people’s right to access public information, a legal obligation of the government since 2008, continues to be lacking, despite the executive branch having forced the Supreme Court, which regarded as “confidential” all legal proceedings, to free up information about what judges do. On March 20 the kidnapping of a businessman and later press coverage of the incident sparked a controversy between the government and news media. The abductors held businessman Ignacio Rospide captive and demanded his family pay $2 million in ransom. Thirty-six hours later, knowing they were surrounded by police, the kidnappers freed Rospide safe and sound without receiving even one cent of ransom payment. But while the abduction was taking place and the family members and police were negotiating with the kidnappers a television channel broadcast the victim’s identity and gave out information on what was happening. Other media immediately did the same. This infuriated Interior Minister Eduardo Bonomi, who described the airing of the report as “irresponsible” because, he said, it put the businessman’s life at risk. Gerardo Sotelo, a radio reporter, argued on the air with the minister, saying that it is journalists’ duty to disseminate information rather than agreeing to be silent or letting rumors circulate. As a result of the public controversy the Interior Ministry called in the heads of all the media, asked for “a news blackout” while the police operation was under way, and suggested a protocol be drawn up between the government and the press to deal with such extreme cases. The discussion led to debates with communication experts. On May 3 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) approved an agreement between journalist Carlos Dogliani and the government and thus closed a case that resulted in substantial amendments to Uruguayan legislation in favor of freedom of expression. Dogliani had been given a suspended sentence of five months in prison for having written in March and April 2004 two articles critical of the governor of Paysandú (240 miles northwest of Montevideo). The governor, Alvaro Lamas, filed a libel suit against Dogliana. After several court hearings Dogliani was sentenced to five months in prison (suspended) in August 2006 by the Supreme Court, which upheld the charge. In February 2007 Dogliani filed a formal complaint with the IACHR that the government had violated his freedom of expression. The IACHR took up the case and sent the petition to the government. But the then government of President Tabaré Vázquez said it was prepared to reach an “amicable agreement” in order to avoid being ruled against by the Inter-American Human Rights Court. Then, a commission formed by civil society agencies – made up in addition of governmental delegates – began work on a bill to amend clauses in Uruguayan law that made journalistic practices in the country criminal offenses. After intense negotiations the executive branch in June 2009 enacted a law that amended the long-standing “press law,” making libel and defamation no longer criminal offenses, overturning a provision for punishing journalists who “undermine the reputation” of a foreign head of state, minimizing the offense of “contempt” of public officials, introducing the “actual malice” doctrine for lawsuits against journalists, and ordering judges to follow the case law of the Inter-American Human Rights Court on the matter. On May 29 President Mujica said during an agricultural businessmen’s convention that in the Uruguay press “there is a news factory,” citing specifically reports published in the newspapers El País and El Observador that had been based on remarks by the president himself. “We’re all going to laugh a bit,” he told the audience before launching his attack on the press. Two days later the official gazette, La República, attacked other media in an editorial and called on the government to put limits on the unfettered practice of journalism. On June 15 the head of the National Telecommunications Directorate (Dinatel), Gustavo Gómez, announced that the government would be promoting a public debate on amending the broadcast law, although he learned that the initiative “does not have as its objective the regulation of news media content.” Gómez announced two laws – one on broadcast media and the other on telecommunications. Throughout this last six-month period preparation of a bill for a radio and television law (known as “media law”) raised growing protests among privately-owned television stations, which warned of the possibility that the government would use the new legislation to put pressure on them through award or withdrawal of broadcast licenses, controls and sanctions. In addition, there is already another bill introduced in the legislature during the previous Tabaré Vázquez administration which would provide for government involvement in broadcast media content, requiring them to provide determined percentages of time slots for the airing of material of national origin. On October 23 the newspaper Ultimas Noticias published a document of the ruling Popular Participation Movement (MPP) party, which President Mujica headed until his election in 2009, in which it is proposed that a “media law” use as its model the one passed by the government of Cristina Fernández in Argentina. According to the document, which will be debated during an MPP convention scheduled for December, the Argentina media law “achieved its objective, very much despite the powerful people who controlled everything with total impunity.” The report called on the government to get ready to confront “very powerful lobbies” and “unscrupulous people capable of doing anything to keep hold of that great piece of power that comes from the unpunished ownership and use of the media.” On July 1 the Uruguay Communist Party (PCU) accused the weekly Búsqueda of engaging in a “misrepresentation” and “a put-up job” in what it saw as an attempt to isolate that political entity “so everyone would come out and hit it.” The newspaper had published an internal document of the PCU, one of the parties in the Mujica government, in which it harshly criticized the economic policy of the current administration, its secretary general, Senator Eduardo Lorier, calling for an “alternative” one. The comments about Búsqueda came after Communist leaders held meetings with President Mujica, Vice President Danilo Astori and Finance Minister Fernando Lorenzo. On July 2 for the first time the Appeals Court overturned a sentence imposed by a lower court on a journalist on a charge of defamation, thus applying the “actual malice” doctrine incorporated into Uruguayan law in June 2009. The Court’s decision set aside a lower court five-month suspended prison sentence on journalist Ricardo Morales, editor of the weekly Tres Puntos published in Paysandú. In January 2009 Tres Puntos had reported that two police officers had been arrested after attempting to bring into Uruguay a load of cocaine from Argentina and also mentioned deputy police chief Ricardo Coelho as being implicated in the incident. Coelho filed a libel suit against the newspaper and in March 2010 local court judge Blanca Riero convicted Morales. But the Supreme Court overturned her ruling, declaring that under the new legislation on freedom of expression in Uruguay “the potential harm of public statements against a public official concerning his or her work in themselves cannot curtail press freedom; such freedom would not exist if the press were to be inhibited from publishing news affecting the reputation of a public official.” On July 22 the weekly Búsqueda published a “confidential report” that had been prepared in 2008 by the then press officer of the Agriculture and Fishing Ministry (MGAP), Juan Angel Fernández, guiding senior Ministry officials on how “to handle the press.” The report characterized as “trustworthy” or “untrustworthy” 21 news media and 34 journalists throughout the country and advised the Ministry officials on to whom they should provide information and to whom not. It also linked the “critical spirit” of some media with “rejection” by the Ministry to grant them official advertising and reported on the politico-ideological background of a number of journalists, just like the old reports that were frequent during the 1973-1985 military dictatorship. Fernández left the document with his successor in the Ministry, Lucía Giambruno Sánchez. On August 2 a district attorney called for the seizure of all copies of a book written by a journalist talking about the role that the Communist Party of Uruguay had played during the military dictatorship. District Attorney Ana María Tellechea petitioned Judge Rolando Vomero to order the seizure of all the copies of the book titled Secretos del Partido Comunista (Secrets of the Communist Party) by Alvaro Alfonso, because she understood that its sale would imply “continued perpetration of the offense.” She called for the journalist to be sentenced to 24 months in prison (subject to parole) on a charge of defamation, on the basis that he had acted with “reckless malice” in writing in the book that Carlos Tutzó, a former Communist Party member of Congress from Montevideo, “collaborated” with the military during the dictatorship. The journalist cited military sources for this and on consulting Communist sources he was told that there was “doubt” in the party about Tutzó’s conduct. On August 4 the Ecuadorean embassy raised an issue with the Montevideo newspaper El País for having criticized in an editorial the communication law which that country’s President Rafael Correa was seeking to enact. The Ecuadorean chargé d’affaires, René Fernández, said the editorial “harms the image of the Ecuadorean government” and denied that the Correa administration was pursuing obligatory membership of a professional guild, that the executive branch was controlling the Communication and Information Council created under the law, or that any kind of prior censorship was sought. El País responded that membership of a professional guild was indeed part of the bill, reaffirmed that the government would control the Council and said the law establishes that prior censorship is prohibited “except in the cases provided for under the Constitution and the law,” which meant that “there could be the case of a law that calls for prior censorship.” On August 13 the results of an investigation published by the weekly Brecha which contained the alleged involvement of former Secretary of the Presidency Gonzalo Fernández in a maneuver to repeal a law that punished a group of Uruguayan bankers charged with having committed offenses during the 2002 financial crisis sparked of a political storm and an outpouring of accusations against that media outlet and others that later made their own coverage of the incident. Fernández, former strongman in the 2005-2010 government of President Tabaré Vázquez, his wife (also implicated in the alleged maneuver ), members of the ruling Frente Amplio party and the official gazette, La República, all attacked Brecha and the rest of the press, calling them participants in a “political plot” and leveling other insults. The case is being investigated by both the Congress and the Judiciary. On August 26 First Lady and Senator Lucía Topolansky said that the ruling Frente Amplio party “once and for all has to have a news media outlet” of its own. On August 30 the state-owned electric company UTE signed with the pro-government communications companies owned by Argentine businessman Federico Fasano an agreement to pay back over 60 months’ worth of debts of more than three years that it had with the public entity amounting to some $350,000. The state-owned company included among the possible forms of payment advertising that the UTE would place in the newspaper La República, AM Libre radio station and television station TV Libre. Government and opposition legislators expressed disagreement with the decision of the state-owned entity, which on June 11 had raised an embargo against that business group. During the 2005-2010 administration of President Tabaré Vázquez the “Grupo de la República” (Group of the Republic) had acted as the official spokesman of the government. During the years in which it overlooked payment of its obligation to UTE the latter not only did not collect what it was owed but is also purchased from Fasano advertising for placement on the newspaper pages and on the radio and TV stations. On September 9 a Civil Appeals Court ordered the permanent shelving of a lawsuit that had been filed in May 2009 against the weekly Búsqueda by former senator from the ruling Frente Amplio party Leonardo Nicolini. He had been forced to resign his seat in the Senate by his fellow party members after Búsqueda reported in 2006 that he had used a “poor person’s ID” to have an operation at a reduced cost at a public hospital. In 2008 Nicolini publicly announced that he planned to file a civil lawsuit against the newspaper with the aim of having it close down. He carried out his threat in May 2009, claiming his reputation had been harmed, but more than one year later the Appeals Court shelved the case, saying that “it does not seem reasonable that an individual reputation and other personal rights are in play.” Nicolini had waited nearly four years to seek recourse. On September 27 President Mujica told the Brazilian magazine Veja that “the best press law is the one that does not exist.” In late September the government decided to require the Judiciary, at the request of any person or institution, to report regarding the files of cases that are in process or have been shelved. The decision was included in an edict of the government Access to Public Information Unit (UIAP) following a formal complaint by the non-government organization Files and Access to Public Information Center (Cainfo), which had failed in a petition to the Supreme Court in that regard. The Court had replied that the handling of case files and identification of those involved in litigation was “confidential” information. But the UIAP determined that the Judiciary “is bound by its obligation” of transparency under the law on access to public information enacted during the 2005-2010 administration of President Tabaré Vázquez. On October 15 the governor of Canelones province, Marcos Carámbula, accused the newspaper El País of having embarked on “a systematic campaign to destabilize” his government. The reaction of Carámbula, of the ruling Frente Amplio party, came in response to reports published in El País and other media saying that his administration had been forced to give up a project for regional integration funded by the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID) after this agency called for justification of expenditure of a 760,000 euros grant. On October 18 Uruguayan Vice President Danilo Astori confirmed his stance against regulating news media content. Meanwhile, Senator Francisco Gallinal of the opposition Partido Nacional party described as “a barbarity” a project of the presidential press office for production of radio and television programs to be aired by privately-owned media. On October 26 a report by Cainfo, an NGO devoted to making access to public information transparent, said that half of the government offices are still not informing the public about the salaries, compensation and assignment of budgets and audits carried out in their departments, thus failing to comply with the law on access to public information passed in 2008.