HE Michelle Bachelet
President of Chile
La Moneda Palace, Santiago
Dear Madam President,
Reporters Without Borders, an organisation that defends press freedom worldwide, would like to draw your attention to the plight of filmmaker and producer Elena Varela López, who has been detained since 7 May and is currently in Rancagua prison. She has been working for more than three years on a major documentary project - Newen Mapuche - about the Mapuche people and their territorial claims, for which she received funding from broadcasting institutes attached to the culture ministry.
Varela and five other people said to be former members of the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) were arrested on 7 May on suspicion of participating in two holdups in 2005 in the localities of Machalí, in which four people were killed, and Loncoche. They are also alleged to have received training from a Colombian guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), in how to carry out armed actions of the kind of which they are accused. They were formally notified of the charges against them on 22 May by Rancagua judge Andrea Urbina. The police say they found combat equipment at the home of Varela, the alleged mastermind of the holdups.
It is not our job to try to influence the way this case is handled, but we are disturbed by certain aspects of the case, starting with the confiscation of material used or recorded by Varela in the course of preparing her documentary film. Why was the seizure of this material considered necessary in an investigation into events that had nothing to do with her documentary? It is also legitimate to ask how someone who was accused of such crimes and who was presumably being sought by the police could receiving government funding for a film. Finally, Varela has been in the Araucania region for three years. Her arrest has taken a long time. There are many people in Chile and elsewhere who are shocked by what has happened to her, and are protesting.
Reporters Without Borders would also point out that other journalists and filmmakers have got into trouble when trying to cover the sensitive subject of the situation of the Mapuches. The editor of the Mapuche magazine Azkintuwe, Pedro Cayuqueo Millaqueo, was arrested twice in 2004 and 2005 after reporting on confiscations of Mapuche land. Two French documentary filmmakers, Christophe Cyril Harrison and Paul Rossj, were briefly arrested on 17 March in Collipulli for allegedly starting the fire they were filming and for “belonging to ETA.” Two Italian filmmakers, Giuseppe Gabriele and Dario Ioseffi, were arrested on 3 May on suspicion of being “terrorists” and were deported.
Is the Mapuche issue a taboo subject, a synonym for press freedom violations? We hope that Chilean and foreign journalists will be given guarantees that they will henceforth be able to work safely in Araucania. We also hope that the police and judicial authorities will provide the explanations and clarification that is needed in the Varela case.
I thank you in advance for the attention you give to this letter.