Reporters Without Borders is concerned for the safety of Marlene Vaz, a journalist based in the northeastern town of Río Branco, and her family, who have been harassed as a result of her reporting the theft of a large consignment of sport shoes involving the Río Branco police in early 2006. The threats have stepped up in recent days as Vaz appeals against her one-year suspended prison sentence for allegedly libelling the police in the weekly she edits, the Río Branco-based Opción Cero.
“It is imperative that every possible measure be immediately taken to protect Vaz and her family,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We have a right to be astonished that no action has been taken to put a stop to the repeated attempts to threaten her and her loved-ones during the past year. The involvement of police officers is almost certainly the reason for this slowness and it is why we call on the interior ministry to intervene.”
Vaz’s children have been threatened and attacked by policemen several times since April 2007. On one occasion, a police officer entered the home of a woman friend of one of her sons without a warrant and arrested him on a charge of theft. Vaz immediately denounced this abuse of authority in a column in her newspaper entitled “A policeman’s cowardice.” The police officer sued her and she got a suspended sentence of five months in prison, against which she appealed.
As Vaz was riding on a bus from Río Branco to Montevideo a week ago, on 7 April, to attend an appeal hearing, she got a call on her mobile phone. “Drop the case of the sports shoes,” the caller said. “Your children have already suffered and the same thing could happen to your granddaughter.”
Her husband and the vice-president of the Uruguayan Press Association (APU), Richard Prieto, got another call threatening Vaz and her children the next day inside the Montevideo courthouse. Vaz has six children, two of whom, aged 20 and 21, still live with her. She told Reporters Without Borders that, although she has heart problems, she also looks after her 13-year-old granddaughter.
The story that started the harassment concerned the theft and resale of a large number of brand sports shoes that were being stored in a police station after they had been confiscated on suspicion of being copies. The police denied the story, but it led to the prosecution of several officials in which Vaz was called to testify.
An Uruguayan court has meanwhile dismissed the libel suit brought by retired army major Enrique Mangini Usera against Roger Rodríguez of the La República daily newspaper for a series of articles accusing him of participating in the murder of a student in 1972.