For a change, Paraguay had no major political crisis in 2001, so the media, which has been a target of repression in previous crises, had a better time of it. But press freedom faces tricky problems, with government officials still irritated by the media’s power to contest their actions. At least eight journalists were threatened or attacked during the year, mostly by government officials or police. For the first time since 1991, a journalist was murdered, apparently at the behest of local politicians. The killer was jailed for 25 years, but those who ordered the murder remained at large.
Legal harassment is the other threat to the media. In the past three years, about 15 lawsuits have been filed against the managing editor of the daily ABC Color, Aldo Zuccolillo, and his paper. Politicians and judges are sometimes in cahoots. In the case of Telmo Ibañez, who was convicted of libel after exposing corruption in a provincial town government, the supreme court had to investigate the impartiality of the judge. A law that made access to public records more difficult was eventually repealed. But another was passed that restricted the release of information about personal wealth, including that of state officials. The press, which regularly denounces corruption, dubbed it the politicians’ "self-defence law."
A journalist killed
Salvador Medina, a journalist with Ñemity, a radio station in the town of Capiibary, in San Pedro province (northeast of Asunción), was shot dead on 5 January 2001 while riding on a motor-cycle with his brother Gaspar. On the air, he had denounced a timber racket involving politicians and a gang of criminals in Capiibary. Pablo, another of Medina’s brothers and correspondent in Curuguaty (Canendiyu province) of the national daily ABC Color, said: "Someone in the family was going to get killed." He said he had published in the paper information that Salvador had given him, some of it originating with their brother Gaspar. In the weeks that followed, members of the Medina family received threats and were forced to move closer to the capital. On 16 October, after a nine-month investigation, a Curuguaty court sentenced Milciades Maylin, one of the criminal gang denounced by Medina, to 25 years in prison for the killing. During the trial, five witnesses identified him as the killer. Maylin even give himself away, saying that one of the witnesses could have not have recognised his voice because he had not spoken during the murder. His lawyer, who denied the killing was premeditated, appealed against the verdict. Three people accused of planning the murder were acquitted for lack of evidence. They were Luís Alberto Franco, suspected owner of the murder weapon and son of a former head of the local branch of the ruling Colorado Party allegedly involved in the timber racket; Timoteo Cáceres, headmaster of a school where Medina also worked and a Colorado Party supporter; and Daniel Enciso Marilin, a cousin of Maylin and a well-known criminal. Several other people are still at large, including Alfredo and Gilberto Salinas, suspected of being in possession of the murder weapon, Claudio Bareiro, Mirta Miranda and Pablo Quiñonez Torres, accused of being accomplices. In the days after the verdict, Pablo Medina received new threats and another brother was harassed by strangers.
Three journalists attacked
A photographer of the daily paper Noticias, Oscar Florentín, was attacked on 11 January 2001 in Ciudad del Este (330 km east of Asunción) by a senior anti-narcotics policeman while covering a police operation in a house.
Andrés Pereira, a photographer with the Ciudad del Este daily Vanguardia, was attacked by plainclothes police on 20 July as he took pictures of them beating a handcuffed person. The police seized his camera and removed the film.
Aldo Lezcano, correspondent of the daily ABC Color in Ybycuí, was attacked on 15 August by Miguel Angel López, a provincial official in Paraguarí (southeast of Asuncion) who was drunk. Shortly afterwards, López threatened to kill him as he was lodging a complaint at the police station. Lezcano has published articles criticising the provincial administration.
Five journalists threatened
The correspondent of the daily La Nación in Ciudad del Este, José Espindola, received telephoned death threats on 25 February 2001 after publishing articles about police being prosecuted for torture and extortion.
Sever del Puerto, head of the legal affairs desk at Asunción’s Radio Cáritas, was given protection on 14 May. From the offices of a TV station where he had taken refuge, he had told of receiving death threats while investigating the involvement of former interior minister Walter Bower in the theft of several million dollars. Del Puerto, who said he was in a state of shock after the threats, said he had "written and tape-recorded proof" that Bower had organised the theft. A few days before, the homes of two other journalists following the story, Roberto Augsten, of the daily Última Hora and of Radio Ñanduti, and Héctor Riveros, of Radio Primero de Marzo, were burgled. Augsten said this was "an odd coincidence." The staff of Radio Primero de Marzo said the ransacking of Riveros’ house, from which just two diaries were stolen, was connected with the affair.
Vicenta Risso, correspondent of the daily ABC Color in Villa Hayes, in the northern province of Chaco, was threatened with death on 18 November by a local official, Eusebio Vergara. The journalist had just taken photos of a government vehicle being used by Vergara in the election campaign of the outgoing governor. In the next few days, Risso got anonymous phone threats.
Pressure and obstruction
The managing editor of the daily ABC Color, Aldo Zuccolillo, was fined 470,880,000 guaranis (134,000 euros) on 30 April 2001 by Judge Hugo López for having libelled Colorado Party Sen. Juan Carlos Galaverna. The judge said the senator’s reputation had been harmed by articles in the paper that said he was living for free in a hotel, that he was on the banking system’s blacklist of "high risk" debtors and that he was corrupt. About 15 lawsuits have been brought against Zuccolillo in the past three years, mostly by politicians and businessmen.
On 27 June, Law 1728, known as the "administrative transparency" law, was passed by parliament and enacted on 16 July by President Luis Angel González Macchi. The law’s sponsor said it aimed to "make access to public records more democratic." In fact, the law made such information harder to get because it increased the bureaucratic formalities required. In some cases, an official could refuse to hand over material requested. Some observers said the law’s real aim was to block investigations into corruption among politicians. After a concerted media campaign, the law was repealed on 24 September.
Law 1682, dealing with access to "private" records and banning or restricting publication of "sensitive material" about people, came into force on 16 July. Information about people’s "wealth, solvency or credit rating" cannot be divulged without their permission. The media regards the law as a "self-defence law" for politicians. It was passed at the end of 2000 after the press ran several investigations of corruption among elected officials. In response to the media’s criticism, a special senate commission was set up soon after the law came into force to re-examine it. The commission proposed that government officials not be covered by the law, but the senate opposed this. The first article of the law was amended in a contradictory and ambiguous way to say that the measure would not apply to the media.
Telmo Ibañez, correspondent of the daily ABC Color in Concepción (central Paraguay), was fined 19 million guaranis (4,460 euros) on 21 September and ordered to pay three million guaranis (700 euros) in damages for libelling town councillors Andrés Villalba, Eulogio Echaguë and Blas Cáceres. Ibañez had said in an article, based on a report by the state auditing board, that they were involved in misdemeanours committed by the former mayor of Concepción, Genaro Domínguez. Several local observers criticised the biased behaviour of the judge, Juan Pablo Cardoso, who reportedly belonged to the same masonic lodge as the children of one of the plaintiffs and had cut short the speeches of the defence lawyer during the trial. On 4 October, the president of the supreme court announced a enquiry into his impartiality. On 3 December, Ibañez was acquitted by an appeal court.