State of press freedom in Americas is deplorable, journalists say

On the streets and in the squares of the Paraguayan capital, Asuncion, it is a rare day that the entire press run of ABC Color is not snapped up early. In part this is because ABC Color is popular among Paraguayans. But lately there is another reason: President Alfredo Stroessner's government, angry at the paper's criticism of it, apparently had the paper's supply of newsprint sharply cut back. There were fewer papers to put on newsstands. Recently the supply from the chief newsprint source was cut off entirely, although the ABC Color is still being published with newsprint from another source.

There have been other steps of harassment against the paper as well. Editor Aldo Zuccolillo has been jailed and some of his top assistants have felt so threatened that they have sought asylum in foreign embassies or fled into exile. Armed police have frequently invaded the paper's newsroom.

This scenario is repeated in Nicaragua, where the opposition newspaper La Prensa is under steadily escalating harassment from the Sandinista government. Curtailment of newsprint deliveries to the paper forced La Prensa to cut its press run.

This sort of harassment was a key subject of debate at the recent annual meeting of the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) in the Peruvian capital, Lima. Editors, publishers, and reporters from North and South America, Central America, and the Caribbean, surveying the state of press freedom in the Americas , found the picture deplorable.

Besides the harassment of ABC Color and La Prensa, the IAPA found government censorship or interference with the press in Argentina, Chile, Grenada, and Uruguay.

And while the IAPA was meeting, the government of Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte in Chile ordered that the press must censor itself ''or else.''

The United States also came in for some criticism at the IAPA meeting. Editors and publishers noted that the Reagan administration did not notify the press that it was invading Grenada and then kept reporters away from the island until well after the event.

At the same time, the IAPA members declared Cuban President Fidel Castro ''the No. 1 enemy'' of freedom of the press in the Western Hemisphere.

The IAPA this year gave its Pedro Joaquin Chamorro Award for Freedom of the Press (named for the murdered editor of Managua's La Prensa) to the Rev. Andrew Morrison, editor of the Catholic Standard, the only independent paper in the Guyanese capital of Georgetown, and to US newsman Stephen Schmidt for defending his right to work for the Tico Times of San Jose, Costa Rica, despite a law that requires journalists to belong to a government-sanctioned college of journalists in order to write in Costa Rica.

The IAPA said the tendency of governments to control newsprint supply is one of the biggest challenges to press freedom. In Argentina, for example, the government owns 38 percent of a private company, Papel Prensa, which imports newsprint.

In a committee report the IAPA expressed ''deep concern'' about this ownership. The committee urged the IAPA to recommend to Argentina's new civilian leaders that they sell their stock in the company. However, Maximo Gainza, publisher of La Prensa of Buenos Aires and new vice-president of the IAPA, recommended against the move - and it was dropped.

A panel of newsmen dealt with the issue of security for reporters and others in the news business. Noting that at least 20 reporters were killed in Latin America in the last year, the panel discussed ways to make the journalistic profession safer for those engaged in it. But the panel did not come up with specific recommendations.

It did suggest, however, that more publicity on the subject might help.

In this connection, it mentioned the deaths of Los Angeles Times newsman Dial Torgeson and free-lance photographer Richard Cross in Honduras in June; the killing of eight Peruvian journalists in a peasant massacre near Ayacucho, Peru, in January; and the still unexplained disappearances of more than 100 Argentine journalists in the past seven years of military rule in that country.

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