Popular radio station is target of harassment in Paraguay

Government-supported censors are stepping up their campaign to force one of Paraguay's most outspoken radio stations off the air, in the latest round in a battle to silence the country's independent news media. Since early December, whenever the station - Radio Nanduti - has broadcast advertising, a ``phantom'' transmitter has jammed the airwaves with Christmas music, says Humberto Rubin, the station's feisty owner.

The phantom transmitter began operating in May, when it started interfering with news programming and talk shows. The station was unable to broadcast anything but music and advertising until the jamming of advertising began in December. Mr. Rubin's appeals for legal action to stop the jamming were cut short by the court's ruling that it was powerless to act because no one had claimed responsibility for the intervention.

Under the military regime of President Alfredo Stroessner, who has ruled for the past 32 years, the news media have traditionally exercised heavy self-censorship to avoid the harassment that hits those who step out of line. Three years ago, the popular newspaper ABC Color was banned for printing reports on such taboo subjects as government corruption.

Radio Nanduti's problems began after it started broadcasting programs with a political and social emphasis, sometimes featuring opposition politicians.

``It became a voice for everyone,'' says one Asunci'on listener, ``a sort of ombudsman where people could go to talk about their problems.''

Almost a quarter of the country's population of 3.6 million was listening to the morning talk show when it was cut off in May, says Rubin.

Problems with government officials started escalating in 1983 as the radio station became bolder and as more information-hungry Paraguayans started tuning in. Stroessner's press secretary issued a list of politicians and topics that could not go on the air. The government later closed the radio station for 30 days, prohibited owner Rubin from going on the air, and threatend him with expulsion from the country.

In April, the situation turned more violent when about 100 ruling Colorado Party members stoned the station and shouted death threats. The police arrived after the protesters left. The station's staff has since been intimidated by police surveillance and armed thugs, and last week reporter Oscar Costa was arrested.

In May, a daily radio program broadcast nationally by the governing party said that Radio Nanduti advertisers were ``financiers of subversion.'' Since then, almost 40 percent of the advertisers have withdrawn their support.

Diplomatic efforts to stop the harassment have failed. This led United States Ambassador Clyde Taylor publicly to denounce the campaign against Radio Nanduti during a visit to the station a week ago. ``For months we have expressed our concern to government officials and now we are publicly expressing our preoccupation,'' Mr. Taylor said.

Aldo Zuccolillo, publisher of the banned ABC Color, says: ``For the people of Paraguay, the closing of Radio Nanduti would be the death of the last hope for freedom of expression.''

Though on the verge of financial ruin, Rubin insists he will continue the fight.

``We will keep selling things until we are down to a microphone and a transmitter,'' he says.

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