Report to the IAPA Midyear Meeting

March 29 to 31
Cartagena, Colombia
Last October, the new six-month-old government merged the Department of Information and Communication (Sicom), the National Department of Information and Communication Technologies (Senatics), as well as the Copaco – which regulates Internet access, and the Conatel – in charge of radio and television frequency permits, into the Department of Information and Communication Technologies. There is concern that this concentration of several state agencies will benefit a single media sector and become a control mechanism on the part of the Executive Branch over press, broadcasting and Internet activities.

This concern adds to the worry generated in recent months by the closure of media outlets for seemingly political reasons. The creation of the new Department was preceded by the closure, in September, of the radio station Crisol FM of María Auxiliadora, Itapúa, which ceased operations due to the disposition of the National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel) in response to the demand of a politician who owns another radio station.

On a positive note, in December the President of the Republic, Mario Abdo Benítez, vetoed a bill to regulate electoral polls, on the grounds that it violates freedom of expression. Bill 6219/2018, which "regulates the carrying out and publication of electoral polls, related to public office elections and referendums," was challenged in November by the Executive Branch for violating the freedom of speech and press established in Article 26 of the National Constitution. In June, the Chamber of Senators had half-approved the bill, which was ratified by legislators in October.

In October, eight journalists covering daily citizen demonstrations in the city of Concepción were included in the list of demonstrators denounced by three municipal councilmen whose homes were damaged by the demonstrators. Mayor Enrique Paniagua, Javier Vergara (ANR) and Gustavo Bonzi (PLRA) filed a complaint at the San Antonio police station against 33 people, among them eight journalists – including two correspondents from media outlets in the capital, for "disturbance of public peace, serious coercion and damages."

In October, Senator Dionisio Amarilla – investigated for embezzlement and influence peddling, reacted to questions by accusing ABC Cardinal 730 AM journalist Edgardo Romero of receiving fuel vouchers from Congressman Edgar Acosta. The legislator refused to repeat or back up his accusation and hours later recanted on social networks amid the backlash of the Internet users.

In December, the Brazilian judiciary ruled that Flavio Acosta Riveros should be tried by a People's Court (Tribunal do Juri) for the material authorship of the murder of ABC journalist Pablo Medina, whose murder took place four years ago, in October. On that occasion, the investigation revealed that the moral author was the then mayor of Ypejhú, Vilmar Acosta, who had repeatedly threatened the press worker for publications that linked him to drug trafficking, and that the material authors were his brother, Wilson Acosta Marques, and his nephew, Flavio Acosta Riveros.

In December, the Court of Appeals of Canindeyú ratified the sentence of 29 years in prison and 10 years of probation for the former mayor of Ypejhú, Vilmar Acosta Marques, found guilty of instigating the murder of ABC Color journalist Pablo Medina. By Agreement and Ruling No. 86 of December 19, 2018, the judges of Salto del Guairá Gustavo Brítez and Marta Romero joined the first verdict of Carlos Domínguez, who voted to ratify the Final Judgment No. 113 of December 19, 2017. The Court presided by Ramón Trinidad Zelaya concluded at the time, that the motive for the crime was Medina's publications on the link between the Acosta clan and drug trafficking and various crimes that took place in the area.

In November, Reinaldo Javier Cabaña, alias Cucho – accused of drug trafficking, criminal association and money laundering, filed an appeal for constitutional protection requesting the prohibition of publication of audios of conversations recorded by the newspaper ABC Color. Judge Gustavo Amarilla rejected the claim against the newspaper ABC Color and all its platforms filed by Filemón Meza – Cabaña's defense atorney.

In December, councilmen of the Municipal Board of San Ignacio - through its president, Gerardo Delvalle (ANR Cartista), prohibited journalists from that community to attend a regular session. They were directed to a room prepared for the press - without audio system to listen to the topics discussed. They were informed that they could not attend the next week's session – planned for the renewal of the Municipal Board's authorities.

In February, Minister Karina Gómez – head of the National Department for the Administration of Seized and Commissioned Property (Senabico), the agency responsible for safeguarding and administering property confiscated by law, refused to provide the press with the information requested regarding the rental of the mansion of drug trafficker Javier Cabaña, alias Cucho, violating Law 5282/14 on free access to public information and government transparency. After the publication of the case in the newspaper ABC Color, the National Anti-corruption Department recommended the publication of the information - including the rental contract. Gómez resigned her office this month. Carolina Llanes – ex-comptroller of the Ciudad del Este Municipality, accepted to assume as the new head of Senabico.

A case of corruption involving Senator Javier Zacarías Irún – ex mayor of Ciudad del Este (triple border area), shakes the country due to its links with the journalistic world. The public official was already being investigated for alleged embezzlement and money laundering when the Public Prosecutor accused him of instigating a breach of trust. In the complaint filed by the Prosecutor's Office, Zacarías Irún used false companies to pay for covert advertising, aimed at spreading a positive image. According to the complaint, millionaire sums were paid to journalists, advertising agencies, signage companies and media (verbal, radio and print) to publicize positive images of Zacarías Irún's family (Javier Zacarías Irún, his wife Sandra McLeod and his brother Justo Zacarías Irún). The Prosecutor's Office claims that electoral propaganda was paid even in the midst of electoral campaigns – including one ex-presidential candidate. The list of payments was included in the Prosecutor's complaint.