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Chile6 June 2008

Letter to President Bachelet about documentary filmmaker held for past month

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.


Robert Ménard

In this country
18 July - Chile
Police say they have identified officer who seriously injured photographer Víctor Salas, but decline to name him
2 April - Chile
Supreme court rescinds controversial restrictions on press reporting
13 December - Chile
Reporters Without Borders condemns attacks on press by Pinochet supporters
1 June - Chile
Eight journalists fall victim to police crackdown on student demo
29 November - Chile
TV crew beaten up outside house party for celebrity

in the annual report
Chile - Annual report 2007
Chile - Annual report 2006

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22 May 2007 - Colombia
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Americas press releases
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29 May - Venezuela
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27 May - Mexico
Crime reporter abducted and killed in Durango state
20 May - Cuba
Anyone can browse the Internet... unless they are Cuban
15 May - Cuba
Journalist gets three-year jail sentence

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