Is Peru's press in peril?

Polls show Fujimori in a statistical dead heat with challenger Toledo in run-up to Sunday's elections.

On Feb. 15, Lima radio station 1160 aired an interview with Susana Higuchi, opposition congressional candidate and ex-wife of Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori. During the interview, Ms. Higuchi accused her former husband's government of corruption.

The next day, just after a rebroadcast of the Higuchi interview, police raided Radio 1160's studios and transmitting locations and confiscated equipment, effectively shutting down the station.

Criticism and consequences - just a coincidence? No, say free-press advocates. Alarmed by a string of similar cases over the past two years, free-press advocates say a relentless campaign has silenced much of Peru's independent press and concentrated the electronic media in the hands of pro-government owners. And they point an accusatory finger at Mr. Fujimori, charging him and his government with using the country's judicial branch - stacked with Fujimori appointees - to apply the muzzle.

"In October 1997, there were seven political programs on Peruvian television, providing something like the old town square for debate and a window to a range of ideas," says Jorge Salazar Cussianovich, executive director of the Press and Society Institute in Lima. "By the end of last year, there were none left. Fujimori understands that the town square has been replaced by the media, specifically television.... Controlling the press became part of the president's strategy for reelection."

Analysts say such high-handedness has partly contributed to Fujimori's slide in popularity, ahead of Sunday's presidential election. In a poll released yesterday, Fujimori, with 38.2 percent support, was in a statistical dead heat with challenger Alejandro Toledo with 37.2 percent.

According to a global country survey by Freedom House, Peru's media deteriorated from "partly free" in 1988 to "not free." The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) last year added Fujimori to its list of the 10 world leaders who are the worst violators of press freedom - making him only the second leader in the Americas, besides Cuba's Fidel Castro, to make the list.

Fujimori says the accusations are "inaccurate and tendentious." But critics disagree. "Fujimori has been very effective and clever about quelling investigative reporting, especially in radio and television, while leaving some of the opposition press as window dressing," says Maryleen Smeets, Latin America specialist with New York-based, CPJ.

Press observers wonder whether Peru is part of a regional trend of muzzling press freedoms. In Venezuela, they say, President Hugo Chvez has gradually dominated his country's electronic press, primarily with long speeches and campaign appearances billed as official government business.

In office since February 1999, Mr. Chvez has been in nonstop campaign mode, first for a new Constitution that was approved in a referendum last December, and now for re-election in a vote set for May. Concerns over press freedom in Venezuela surfaced when the new Constitution included a provision requiring journalists to publish "truthful information."

Meanwhile, Mexico, it appears, is moving the other way. A media survey revealed that, for the first time in Mexico's modern history, an opposition candidate for president is actually getting more press coverage than the candidate of the ruling party.

Concerns over press freedom in Peru began in 1997, when the Israeli-born owner of TV Channel 2, Baruch Ivcher, was stripped of his Peruvian citizenship. Since laws bar foreign ownership of mass-media companies, Mr. Ivcher lost Channel 2 to minority owners - and the station's independent programming disappeared.

Since then, four more TV channels and several radio stations have faced legal proceedings either involving challenges from minority owners or financial problems - as in the case of Radio 1160. Those cases have resulted either in more pro-government programming or an outright shift of control to pro-government owners.

Most recently the Lima newspaper El Comercio, which broke the scandal over alleged fraud in the campaign to amass 1 million signatures for Fujimori's re-election, also came under attack from minority shareowners.

"They immediately sent down a delegation, causing a lot of attention" and leading the newspaper's opponents to retreat, says Comercio Editor Alejandro Miro Quesada Cisneros. He says that while each case may be different, "the essence of what they were doing is the same" - although he adds that he does not believe Fujimori personally was behind the attack.

A concern for financial survival is just one explanation of why owners are toeing a government line, experts note. With Peru in a recession, government advertising has surpassed other sources of revenue, and has given the government formidable financial leverage for pressuring owners.

Government advertising has also been used to develop a full stable of sensational pro-government tabloid newspapers that roll out their big guns - and their headlines - against any threat to Fujimori that surfaces. "It's a cheap press for the masses, whose target of the day is signalled from within the intelligence services," says Mr. Salazar. "A lot of times there's not even a story below the big headlines."

Despite these arguments, Fujimori says there is nothing to accusations of a limited or harassed press in his country. He offers as proof the fact that most of the media - TV, radio, newspapers - are privately owned, and he adds that most of the legal battles that have engulfed various media have been among company shareowners and did not involve the government.

"What role does the government have in a dispute between two business partners?" he said in a recent interview with the Monitor. "Are these critics saying the government should favor one of the sides, or should it stick to the sidelines so there is freedom of the press?"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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