With general elections just around the corner, the media in Paraguay know the road ahead will be challenging no matter what happens. Journalists throughout this country deep in the heart of South America realize they will have to keep up the ongoing battle to keep the press free.
The Sindicato de Periodistas del Paraguay (Paraguay Union of Journalists) labeled 2007 as “a year of struggle, setbacks and advances.” The group cited constant “governmental hostility” and “labor issues” as the major problems facing journalists.
The most serious case, however, was the murder of radio reporter Tito Alberto Palma Godoy. Reports indicate that he was shot by two men in military uniform while he was with his father-in-law and his wife. She was hurt but later recovered.
“Those who attempt to expose corruption, drug trafficking and other criminal activities often face intimidation, death threats and physical attacks,” according to the International Press Institute (www.freemedia.at). “Journalists also suffer from restrictions on access to information and legal harassment, including criminal defamation charges, leading to widespread self-censorship.”
In a 2007 Annual Report, Reporters Without Borders commented that, “In such a fragile democracy with deep-rooted corruption (the worst in South America, according to Transparency International), journalists do not dare probe too deeply into scandals involving politicians.”
Local radio stations and small newspapers appear to be the most vulnerable. In June, two radio stations were shut down by the government prior to a court ruling. In October, a newspaper outside Asuncion was destroyed by order of the town mayor because of a so-called land dispute.
Freedom House, a nonprofit international organization that fights for democracy and freedom, calls Paraguay “one of the most troubled democracies in Latin America.” Media groups all over the world no doubt would agree, especially as the number of attacks against journalists in Paraguay increases each month. Below is a chronology of the many incidents recorded during the past year by RSF and the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (www.ifex.org).
Media in the headlines
• President Duarte calls opposition media “enemy of the country” — Nov. 14 (RSF)
• Journalist investigating corruption harassed by official’s security guard — Oct. 1 (IFEX)
• Journalists assaulted, harassed while covering release from jail of former military general — Sept. 7 (IFEX)
• Chilean radio journalist shot dead in high-risk tri-border region — Aug. 24. (RSF)
• Radio journalist Enrique Galeano reappears alive 17 months after being abducted — July 16 (RSF)
News in the headlines
• Paraguay gets yellow fever vaccines: President Nicanor Duarte declared a state of emergency in mid-February because of an outbreak of yellow fever, the first in more than 30 years. Thousands of panic-stricken protestors blocked a road outside the capital demanding treatment. According to the Ministry of Health, more than 600,000 doses of vaccine were needed. Nations such as Cuba, Venezuela, Peru and Brazil rushed emergency supplies to the country. See www.newsweek.com
• Supermarket owners convicted of manslaughter in Paraguay blaze that killed 374: Two owners of a supermarket in Asuncion were found guilty in the deaths of 374 people when their business caught fire in 2004. The father and son received prison sentences of 12 and 10 years, respectively. More than 2,000 people, many of them children, were in the building when the blaze began. Prosecutors said hundreds were trapped because the doors were ordered shut to prevent looting. See www.iht.com
• Paraguay president narrowly escapes poisoning: President Duarte was not hurt in February when he drank water from a bottle containing hydrochloric acid. According to reports, the bottle came from the refrigerator of his armed forces chief who poured the water into a glass. “‘There was no immediate indication that somebody tried to kill the president, but an investigation was under way,’ said Gen. Mario Soto, in whose office the incident occurred.” See www.ap.org
Danger in success
Soybean production in Paraguay is growing faster than any other country. The nation now ranks fourth in the world in soybean exports. But what seems to be a blessing for a poor country has turned out to be a national nightmare.
“Towns have been deserted and thousands of peasant campensinos claim to have been kicked off their land,” according to the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting (www.pulitzercenter.org). “The campensinos say they have been ‘Earth robbed’ by Brazilian and Argentinean landowners who bribe, beat and even kill in order to grow soy.”