Press Freedom In Paraguay Can Be Lethal
By Joel Solomon
Joel Solomon is associate director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Few appreciated the February 1989 overthrow of Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner more than Héctor Guerín. As a reporter in 1988, Guerín was arrested by soldiers, beaten, then forced to clean the floor of an army barracks with his shirt.
But his problems did not end with the dictator's departure. Guerín's recent series of more than 120 articles for the Asunción-based daily ABC Color described the thriving illegal trade of cars, electronics, cigarettes and other items in eastern Paraguay. The series has led to death threats, assaults, court charges and a brief period of self-exile.
Guerín is not alone in suffering reprisals for reporting, but his is no longer the typical journalist's story in Paraguay. Rather, it points to a weakness in Paraguay's fledgling democracy: the absence of institutional safeguards against violations of human rights.
Freed from 35 years of uncompromising and often brutal rule by Stroessner, who jailed his critics and closed their media outlets, thus inspiring self-censorship, Paraguayan journalists such as Guerín have launched headlong into previously taboo topics such as military affairs, human rights abuses and corruption. But the media continue to tread lightly on the business dealings of the military officials still running the country, journalists say.
While Stroessner is in exile in Brazil, the society he molded over three decades has begun to remake itself. Pernicious features of the old regime remain, however. As Humberto Rubín, a journalist and owner of a radio station that Stroessner forced off the air in 1987, says, "It's not the laws we fear. It's the judges."
Guerín might well agree after his encounter with the law and the local power structure in Ciudad del Este, a town bordering Brazil that prospers on contraband, estimated to be a billion-dollar business in Paraguay.
Shortly after the first of his articles on corruption in the area appeared last February, Guerín started to receive death threats. Then, while photographing a clandestine airstrip, Guerín was chased away at gunpoint. Over the course of the next month, angry crowds confronted him on a town street, he and two colleagues were beaten by a mob, and someone painted a cross on his car, marking him for death. Police investigations in the matter were shoddy, he says. And when a thief slipped into his home despite the guards police had posted and stole only his daughter's shoes, Guerín felt he was in imminent danger. He left the country for several months.
The airstrip Guerín attempted to photograph is owned by a friend of Gen. Andrés Rodríguez, who ousted Alfredo Stroessner and, after elections, assumed the presidency. Although Rodríguez is a friend of Carlos Barreto Sarubbi, the airstrip owner, observers don't link Rodríguez to the attacks against Guerín; he has been, in fact, widely praised for lifting controls on the press and stopping government-sponsored violence against journalists.
Nevertheless, Rodríguez and his ministers have not attempted to bring those who attack and intimidate journalists to justice.
A new constitution and a presidential election slated for 1993 are expected to address some of the "formid-able" obstacles to democracy highlighted in a recent report by the Washington Office on Latin America, an independent organization that monitors human rights and political developments in Latin America. The report stressed an "urgent need for structural and procedural reforms to the judiciary that will allow for its independent and effective functioning."
Still, times have changed. In October a judge threw out a defamation suit brought by Barreto Sarubbi against Guerín, his co-author on the corruption story and ABC Color's editor in chief. Barreto's lawyer, who still maintains the corruption series was an intentional smear job, has appealed the decision.
For now, though, Guerín's other fears are sufficient to keep him on edge. On April 26, journalist Santiago Leguizamón was shot and killed in Pedro Juan Caballero, a city bordering Brazil to the northwest of Ciudad del Este. Leguizamón's death, following his investigation into corruption for his station Radio Mburucuyá and Asunción dailies, left an unambiguous message. April 26 was Journalists' Day in Paraguay.
"We haven't changed the content of our stories since the murder," says Edwin Brítez, who heads ABC Color's political section. "But journalists are afraid; the crime remains uninvestigated and unpunished. It's clear that there are no guarantees."
For years Héctor Guerín collected information on corruption in Ciudad del Este without dreaming that he would be able to publish it. While acknowledging the importance of new freedoms for the press, he also recognizes the need to expand them. "The backward step now," he says, "consists of no longer moving forward." ###