Fourteen years after being unshackled from the constraints of the Pinochet dictatorship, the Chilean media are undergoing a major self-examination into whether they are abusing their freedom through their sensational and allegedly unethical reporting of a pedophile scandal with political overtones.
The scandal, which broke in October and has riveted the country’s attention ever since, is an uncommon phenomenon in Chile, a country that has long prided itself as having greater political rectitude than her neighbors. But it has not been an uncommon phenomenon elsewhere in Latin America or in Eastern Europe, and unprecedented press freedom in those areas has sometimes tempted the media to press the envelope on taste and responsibility.
“It has really complicated things for the media, because they don’t have any experience with anything like this,” said Eliana Rozas, a journalism professor at Catholic University and a member of the seven-member Council of Ethics of the Communication Media.
The background: Claudio Spiniak, a wealthy gymnasium owner, was arrested during a raid on his home for allegedly operating a pedophile ring in which children of both sexes were sexually abused at parties attended by his well-connected friends.
The country witnessed the arrest of Spiniak, in his bedroom and clad in underwear, on television. A news crew from Teletrece (Channel 13), owned by Catholic University, gave its camera to a policeman, who taped the arrest.
The scandal exploded as a political bombshell a few days later. Pía Guzmán, a member of the lower house of Congress for the conservative opposition party National Renewal (RN) and a champion against abuse of children, publicly announced that confidential sources had informed her that three unnamed senators, two from the opposition and one from the center-left governing coalition Concertación, were among those frequenting Spiniak’s parties.
Guzmán later said she regretted going public but maintained that she stood on her information.
With that, a veritable media frenzy ensued. Santiago’s five privately owned dailies, two of the major TV stations with news operations and three young political tabloids vied to be the first to answer the question the whole country was asking: Who?
The biweekly tabloid Plan B, which began publication in August, carried a cover story in its Oct. 23 edition alleging that the unnamed senator involved with the woman was Jovino Noboa of the ultrarightist Independent Democratic Union (UDI), the RN’s coalition partner. The paper based this and subsequent stories on anonymous sources; Noboa has denied the allegation.
Two other iconoclastic young tabloids have milked the scandal for its sensational value: The Clinic, which takes its name from the British clinic where Pinochet was arrested on human rights charges in 1998, and El Periodista (The Journalist).
The next scoop went to Teletrece in November. The station interviewed a 21-year-old woman, shown backlighted and identified only as “G,” who stated that she had lived in Spiniak’s house while she was a minor and had had an ongoing sexual relationship with a senator, whom she declined to name. But she insisted she could identify marks on his body “that only his wife and I know about.”
The mainstream daily El Mercurio, Chile’s newspaper of record, identified the woman on Nov. 7 as Gemma Bueno. The other mainstream daily and El Mercurio’s chief competitor, La Tercera, quickly followed suit and ran her picture. El Mercurio’s sister daily tabloids, La Segunda and Ultimas Noticias, and La Tercera’s sister tabloid, La Cuarta, then joined the fray, as did the three non-daily tabloids. Bueno’s former husband began granting interviews, and the lurid details of her life became grist in a circulation battle reminiscent of the United States in the Hearst-Pulitzer era. Plan B reported on Dec. 4, again citing confidential sources, that the senator with the mysterious markings was Noboa.
This media circus took an even more bizarre twist in early November. Sebastián Rodríguez, the owner of a gay-oriented sauna in Santiago, approached ChileVisión (Channel 11), owned by the Claxon Group of the United States, and said that Daniel Calvo, the appeals court judge appointed to head the Spiniak investigation, regularly frequented the sauna.
The news director, Alejandro Guillier, had Rodríguez rigged with a hidden camera and sent him to confront the married Calvo with the allegation. Unaware he was being taped, Calvo admitted going to the sauna. Recording someone without his knowledge is a violation of Chilean law.
Fernando Reyes, a reporter with ChileVisión, then confronted Calvo with the information that had been recorded. Again, Calvo acknowledged – on the record – that he frequented the sauna. He insisted he is not gay but went there to view movies in order to improve his marriage. After the ensuing media blitz on him in the wake of his admission, Calvo withdrew as investigating judge and was replaced by Sergio Muñoz on Nov. 7. The investigation is ongoing.
The methods employed in reporting on the scandal have come under fire from both the government and the Council of Ethics.
A month after he succeeded Calvo, Muñoz delivered an uncharacteristically harsh condemnation of the media’s coverage of the case, accusing them of numerous inaccuracies. Asked by reporters whether the media were gravely mistaken, Muñoz replied, “They are very wrong.” He did not cite specific errors.
On Dec. 3, the National Television Council, a rough equivalent of the FCC, reprimanded and levied fines of $3,000 against Teletrece for showing the arrest of the underwear-clad Spiniak and $4,000 against ChileVisión for illegally taping Calvo.
Moreover, ChileVisión is facing a criminal investigation. A colleague of Calvo’s, Judge Gabriela Pérez, was appointed to investigate the illegal taping and has filed criminal extortion charges against Rodríguez, Guillier, Reyes, editor Patricio Caldichoury and producer Raúl Poblete. Those charges are still pending.
The Council of Ethics, composed of representatives of print, radio and television, also weighed in on the methods used.
Rozas said the council was created in 1992, two years after Chile’s return to democracy. In that time, it has issued 117 “sentencias,” or reprimands, against media abuses ranging from poor taste to public opinion polls that employ questionable methodology. The council issued a sentencia against both Teletrece for showing the Spiniak arrest and against Chilevisión for the Calvo recording. It also generally faulted the media for usurping the role of investigators in the case.
“I’m personally opposed to hidden cameras except in exceptional cases, but (these cases were) not exceptional,” Rozas said. “A TV station needs images. They are more worried about obtaining images than they are in reporting information. This causes a reduction in the credibility of that medium.
“There’s nothing wrong with showing an arrest. Nevertheless, you have to distinguish between those images and invading someone’s bedroom.”
In both these cases, she added, “What bothered me was turning over a journalistic duty to someone else,” a policeman in the Spiniak arrest and Rodríguez in the taping of Calvo.
Rozas said the council also sanctioned El Mercurio for revealing Bueno’s identity, which is a violation of law.
“We supposed that El Mercurio never consulted her,” she said. “It doesn’t seem reasonable to me that the media, without consulting anyone, should report the identity of victims or possible victims of certain crimes. Our privacy law prevents the publication of the identification of minors, regardless of age.”
Asked what legal sanctions El Mercurio might face, she replied, “Probably nothing. The process is so slow. It isn’t worth the expense or the bother.”
Of Plan B’s use of anonymous sources to accuse Noboa, Rozas said, “The public doesn’t know if they checked facts or not. It’s a dangerous thing. There’s no certainty. This could really put an obstacle in the administration of justice, of the investigation.”
She also expressed her fear that congressmen “will respond to this kind of coverage by tightening privacy laws to protect themselves.”
In fact, the Concertación-controlled lower house of Congress approved a tough new privacy law in December, complete with economic sanctions. The Chilean Federation of Social Communication Media called the bill “the gravest threat to freedom of expression since the return to democracy,” and said that “the threat of economic sanctions against the most elemental reporting tasks will muzzle the communication media … and impede them from collecting a large number of tips from the public regarding situations of manifest social interest.”
The bill awaits action in the Senate, controlled by the conservative opposition – among them the aggrieved Noboa.
Ironically, the editor of Plan B, Alejandra Matus, was herself the victim of such a law. In 1999, when she published a book critical of the Chilean Supreme Court, she was forced to flee the country when an offended justice ordered an arrest warrant issued against her under Article 6:B of Chile’s 1958 National Security Law. He also ordered all copies of the book confiscated from bookstores and the publisher’s warehouse (see Quill, September 1999).
Congress finally repealed Article 6:B in 2001, allowing Matus to return home. She defended Plan B’s reportage of the Spiniak case and the accusation against Noboa, saying the Chilean media are denied access to information in criminal cases that U.S. media enjoy.
“The criminal process is secret, so until the judge decides to charge somebody we have no way of knowing what’s going on. And when he charges someone, we only have access to his decisions, but not the whole process. We won’t have access to testimony or proof until the final (adjudication),” she said. “Meanwhile, we try to cover the process through reliable sources. If the Chilean process were open, we wouldn’t have to use covert methods.”
She said the closed nature of criminal cases is the focus of her latest book, “Injusticia Duradera” (“Lingering Injustice”).
Plan B was not the first to allege Noboa had attended Spiniak’s parties. Carlos Huneeus, director of a left-wing think-tank, made the allegation on his Web site soon after Guzmán’s revelations. Noboa sued for libel, and in February the two settled out of court when Huneeus renounced the accusation.
Matus said Huneeus was not one of her sources and that Noboa has not filed suit against Plan B.
“We have access to people who know she (Bueno) said this,” she insisted. “We have been very careful not to accuse him (directly). We’re trying to reconstruct what the judge is getting. We constantly sort out rumors. We’re pretty sure we are right. They are different sources, and we know they have access to the case.
“We’re trying to bring the public all the information so they can make a better judgment,” Matus said. “We think that’s our responsibility. We are a journalistic medium. We don’t have an agenda. We are neither right-wing nor left-wing. We do this all the time with (suspects) who are not powerful, and nobody complains.”
Ascanio Cavallo, a veteran journalist whose political column in La Tercera is now one of Chile’s most respected, said he is far more concerned with what he sees as the lapses of ethics on television than in the nondaily tabloids, whose circulations are numbered in four digits.
“Television has had tough coverage in recent years, and it hasn’t reflected enough on its standards, which are lower than those of U.S. television,” he said. “TV is much more of a mass medium, and its impact is much greater than those new print media.
“You can’t justify violating the law and ethics,” he said. “They need to work harder to use conventional methods. There are always easy and difficult ways to obtain information. The easy way is outside the law. This kind of TV coverage is a new phenomenon, and it reflects a lack of maturity.”
Rozas Ortuzar voiced her fear that after winning back their freedom, the Chilean media are delivering a self-inflicted wound.
“The media always want to sell papers or boost ratings, but when they are contrary to the quality or veracity of the information, it only increases readership or ratings for the short term,” she said. “If they are wrong, it’s going to cost them a lot more.”
Rozas Ortuzar conceded, however, that during the Pinochet era, the Spiniak case probably would not have been reported at all.
“As bad as the coverage is, it’s better than suppressing the news,” she said. “It (freedom) is priceless. That’s why it’s so important for the media to cover this with good quality, so they won’t make errors, and so people won’t fault the press.”
Robert Buckman, Ph.D., is associate professor of journalism at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He taught at Catholic University of Chile under a Fulbright Fellowship in 1991 and spent eight days in Chile in December researching this article. He is co-chair of SPJ’s International Journalism Committee.