Peruvian Zuliana Lainez is president of the National Association of Journalists of Peru (ANP, by its Spanish acronym) and vice-president of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). Behind her leadership positions stands a long career as a journalist, professor and guild leader.
In an interview with LatAm Journalism Review (LJR), Lainez talked about the current situation of independent journalism in Latin America, persistent judicial harassment against the press, and the current crisis of confidence in media in Peru.
Aggression against journalists is persistent in Peru. According to ANP data, since December 2022, 183 journalists and media outlets have been attacked while covering social protests in the context of the political crisis. The most frequent attacks have been physical and verbal aggressions.
"Stop recording, move to the side or I'll hit you in the head," a police officer threatened a photojournalist covering the protests in Cusco, according to the ANP.
"What we journalists have to confront the most at the moment is people’s distrust. We have a very hostile climate. You go to cover a protest and if the police see the press they go all out because they don't want there to be any record of human rights violations. During protests, people are angry, they can beat you up," Lainez said.
Currently, the Andean country is experiencing a return to protests and mobilizations against the Dina Boluarte government, demanding to move up general elections. On July 19, 2023, thousands of Peruvians rose up in the 24 regions of the country, and made the historic center of Lima the focal point of the protest. It was dubbed the "Third Seizure of Lima." In spite of the fact that journalistic accounts of that day said the march was peaceful, the police and the military attacked demonstrators with tear gas bombs and pellets.
The Press Freedom Observatory of the ANP recorded that seven journalists were attacked during the July 19 demonstration in Lima. Six of the attacks were perpetrated by civilians and one by police officers, according to the organization. Among these attacks were thefts of work tools and journalistic equipment, as well as insults and physical aggressions against journalists. One of the cases that received the most media coverage was that of Gabriela Ramos Carbajal. This independent journalist was shot five times with pellets by the police, causing injuries to her back, arms and face. The journalist was taken to the hospital for treatment and, according to police sources, she has already been discharged.
In spite of the repression and the fact that the Boluarte regime is limiting the right to protest, the General Confederation of Peruvian Workers called for new nationwide demonstrations for July 27, 28 and 29. In this context of social and political crisis, at the beginning of July, the meeting held by the Peruvian Ministry of Culture with members of the association La Resistencia, a right-wing extremist group associated with the attack of journalists, among other public figures, was reported.
The discontent of the Peruvian population with media and the aggressions of civilians against the press in demonstrations is reflected in results of a national survey conducted by the Institute of Peruvian Studies in May 2023. Results show that 65% of the population said the media reported news of the social protests in a biased manner.
According to Lainez, Peru is experiencing its second worst media crisis of confidence. It began when "the mass media openly disinformed to favor Keiko Fujimori's candidacy" in the electoral campaign for the 2021 general elections. The first crisis was in 2000, when then-president Alberto Fujimori was impeached by the Parliament after being involved in a corruption scandal.
Lainez has been an activist since the beginning of her career and at 28 she was elected secretary general of the ANP. In 2021, she was elected president, a role that until then no woman had held in the 93-year history of the organization. Within her role in IFJ, she visited Palestine in May 2023, on the occasion of the one year anniversary since the murder of Shireen Abu Akleh, the Al Jazeera reporter who was shot and killed while covering an Israeli military incursion into the occupied West Bank.
She has worked in newspapers, on radio, is a journalism professor, and a lecturer specializing in the safety of journalists and freedom of expression. She talked in detail about the news she recently heard when human remains were found in the city of Huacho, in the department of Lima, Peru. It was presumed they could be those of journalist Pedro Yauri, who had been forcibly disappeared in June 1992 at the hands of the Colina Detachment, a paramilitary group promoted by the government of then-President Alberto Fujimori.
"In the 21st century, Peru has had three journalists disappeared. One of them was our colleague Pedro Yauri, but the remains that recently surfaced were quickly identified as not his. Between 1980 and 2000, the worst period of violence in the country, we had more than 50 journalists murdered, and we only have one case where there has been 100% justice. That was achieved this year,” Lainez said.
"The situation of independent journalism in Latin America is extremely complicated," Lainez said. "It’s a paradoxical situation. We need journalism more than ever, we’re facing critical times in the region from every point of view. Some examples are the political and social crisis in Peru, or the social repression in the province of Jujuy in Argentina. The first victims of these processes are always the people of the press. The mass media are allied to power, and independent journalism is a breath of hope that offers a plurality of voices and is not subject to corporate interests."
However, one of the biggest challenges for independent journalism continues to be economic sustainability. "Many news outlets depend on grants, but these don't last forever. Some publications had a good start thanks to these grants, but now with the focus on [the invasion in] Ukraine, funds have turned to that region," Lainez said. "For subscriptions to be able to sustain a news outlet at 100% is a very restricted scenario. Latin America is not a region that is willing to pay for information."
However, according to the IFJ vice-president, judicial harassment is at the top of the list of challenges facing journalism in the region, that is, the persecution and abusive exercise of justice. Cases such as that of José Rubén Zamora, the founder of elPeriódico of Guatemala who was sentenced to six years in prison for money laundering, are exemplary. Lainez said that in Peru, "in terms of judicial harassment at the ANP we are overloaded, we receive more than 30 cases a year. We don't manage to deal with them all." And she emphasized that judicial harassment "has a triple impact when it is applied against independent journalists, because they don’t have a legal team behind them to face the lawsuits."
The ANP has documented the lawsuits filed against journalists and media in Peru between 2019 and 2022. It has counted 109 cases in those years, of which 80% were lawsuits initiated by public officials, public figures, or their relatives. In this scenario, in 2022, the Peru Libre caucus introduced a bill to raise prison sentences from three to four years for defamation for information published in the media, social media or websites. The ANP expressed its condemnation against this proposal. "The first thing we did was to say that in a country where judicial harassment is so normalized, this bill is a danger to freedom of the press," Lainez said.
The ANP president continued: "Under the current legal framework, lawsuits against journalists and news outlets usually last an average of four years. At the end of this process, 90% of journalists are acquitted. Defamers are not taken to court, while journalists are taken to court for doing their job. They take us [to court] to take away our peace of mind." For her, "having legal defense has an economic impact. If the bill they proposed had been approved, the proceedings would’ve been extended to six years, the torture [for journalists] would have been greater. Fortunately, the bill was shelved."
In view of the precarious working conditions and violence to which journalists are exposed, Lainez is categorical in saying that organizing within the profession is key. She mentioned the situation of photojournalists who, when they go to cover street demonstrations, they "go together, they organize themselves in the field."
Another piece of advice from the president of ANP is not to normalize aggressions: "When something happens to you, you have to report it immediately. The Public Prosecutor's Office must assume its responsibility and try to identify these cases. Because they tend to go unpunished, law enforcement goes all out [against reporters]."
Finally, Lainez placed special emphasis on psychological support for journalists covering violence and demonstrations. "We journalists are very focused on security training, and we think little about emotional support. We are not superheroes, and moments of absolute tension are very frequent," she said.
Contributor Florencia Pagola is a freelance journalist from Uruguay. She does research and writes about human rights and freedom of speech in Latin America.
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