Armed men and police inaction during protests blamed for first murder of journalist in Chile since Pinochet

Chilean journalist Francisca Sandoval, 29, died at the Public Assistance Emergency Hospital twelve days after being shot in the face. Sandoval was covering the May 1 Workers’ Day marches that turned violent, with shootings and looting, in a commercial neighborhood in downtown Santiago.

Police forces repressed the protest harshly, however, they were not the only ones. In videos from street cameras and from the protagonists themselves, you can see armed people shooting at protesters in the Meiggs neighborhood, approximately at the time that Sandoval was wounded, according to Chilean investigative site Ciper. They were allegedly shooting to prevent damage and looting, as Ciper quotes the Carabineros saying.

At least 11 individuals fired at people from trading posts where they were entrenched, Ciper reported. Nine of the eleven allegedly did so with firearms and the other two with firearms firing blanks.

Photo of Chilean journalist who died and burning candles

Vigil in former Plaza Italia, in Santiago de Chile, for the death of journalist Francisca Sandoval. (Credit of photo and banner: Londres 38, espacio de memorias)

According to authorities, the main suspect of the shot that killed Sandoval, Marcelo Naranjo, is in preventive detention, as reported by CNN Chile. The public prosecutor formalized the charges against Naranjo for crimes of consummated homicide, illegal possession of weapons and unjustified shooting.

It has not been possible to establish, based on local news, whether Naranjo was one of the street vendors or a security guard at one of the informal stalls.

The public prosecutor also ordered the detention of two other suspects: Yonaiker Fuenmayor Rondón, a Venezuelan national, and Luis Flores Salazar, from Colombia. Both are under house arrest for illegal possession of firearms.

Local media say Sandoval is the first Chilean journalist to die in democratic times of the country, since the assassination of José Carrasco Tapia. Tapia was a journalist critical of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990) and died in 1987 when intelligence agents gunned him down in his house, in front of his family.

In addition to Sandoval, two other journalists were injured in the shooting in Barrio Meiggs during workers' day demonstrations, as reported by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). According to CPJ, Radio 7 reporter, Fabiola Moreno, was hit in her shoulder, and Roberto Caro, a reporter for Piensa Prensa, was shot in the leg. Both journalists were treated and released, Danilo Ahumada, president of the Chilean Association of Journalists, told CPJ.

The undersecretary of the Chilean Ministry of the Interior, Manuel Monsalve, lamented the violence and the death of Sandoval in Barrio Meiggs, and said that illegal trade in the area is linked to criminal organizations, according to information from Diario USACH. Monsalve also announced that an internal investigation has been opened against the Carabineros, Chile's militarized police, according to the Chilean edition of the Spanish newspaper El País.

Chilean President Gabriel Boric said on National Television that as a State they cannot allow criminal gangs to take over the streets of the country. Likewise, Boric expressed solidarity with the Sandoval family and condemned the violence unleashed during the Workers' Day march. "We will not allow impunity," he said via Twitter.

“In Chile there is no guarantee for journalists and communicators when they cover violent events. It is always a risk,” Chilean investigative journalist and academic Francisca Skoknic told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR).

“In this particular case, journalists are not only at risk because they are exposed to events external to them, but they have been directly targeted in recent years. So that makes it that much riskier,” she said.

Media outlet Señal 3 La Victoria, where Sandoval worked, reported her death on May 12 through Twitter: “Francisca did not leave us. They murdered her. Through these words we confirm the death of our beloved Fran. We will miss you and will do everything possible to find the truth."

Magdalena Saldaña, Chilean journalist and researcher at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, told LJR that “for decades, the biggest problem of the Chilean press has been the high concentration of media, where a couple of journalistic conglomerates own the radio stations and television channels. There is talk of a lack of pluralism, a lack of independence, of alternative views.”

"But, the problem of fear, that you lose your life doing your job [as a journalist], was relegated to the years of the dictatorship," Saldaña added.

Before learning that Sandoval had died, the Chilean Commission for Human Rights (CCHDH) and the Chilean Association of Journalists filed two legal actions on May 10 for frustrated homicide, serious injuries and unlawful coercion against those allegedly responsible for the attacks on the three journalists on May 1.

These complaints, according to the statement, also directly call out the director general of the Carabineros, Ricardo Yáñez Reveco.

“This failure to act not only violently prevented the exercise of the right to demonstrate freely in a peaceful manner and to report freely and truthfully on events, thus violating its own action protocols and national and international regulations on freedom of expression and constitutionally guaranteed rights, but rather that their inaction was the direct cause of harm to the life and physical and mental integrity of the victims and their families,” both organizations stated in their press release.

According to news agency EFE, hundreds of people gathered in the former Plaza Italia on Thursday, May 12, to demand justice for Sandoval and her family. When trying to march down the main avenue, the Carabineros Special Forces dispersed them with water cannons, the Spanish agency reported.

The repression of social protest and all its actors by the forces of order has always been strong in Chile, Skoknic explained, "at least since the [Augusto Pinochet] dictatorship."

"The Carabineros always go too far in violence, they do not follow their own protocols and there have always been many times when they have been questioned, even repressing underage schoolchildren," she added.

“Along with the resurgence of street protests and the questioning of the current political model have exposed the violence perpetrated against journalists by the police and military intelligence services. Existing laws are not effective in protecting news professionals and, although progress has been made, attacks on journalists and the media remain largely unpunished,” said the recent annual report on freedom of expression from Reporters Without Borders (RSF), regarding safety in Chile.

In the 2022 edition of the global freedom of expression index prepared by RSF, Chile ranks 82nd in the ranking of 180 countries, falling 28 positions compared to 2021, when it ranked 54th.