Paraguay says it will adopt mechanisms to protect journalists at risk

In response to allegations of 23 journalists injured during police repression of social protests in Paraguay, the government of that country announced the coming adoption of a security protocol for journalists at risk.

The statement was made in Buenos Aires, Argentina before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) during its 162nd period of public hearings from May 22 to 26.

Ariel Martínez, deputy minister of political affairs at the Ministry of the Interior, who reported on the measure, said the government rejects any aggression against the press. "The Paraguayan State has a commitment to ensure that the exercise of freedom of expression develops within the constitutional and legal limits. We want to determine if, in fact, these actions, which are totally unacceptable, were directed at the press to hinder their work. That is under investigation," he said.

Between March 31 and April 1, Paraguayans took to the streets to protest a constitutional amendment presented by the government of President Horacio Cartes, which would allow him to be re-elected to the presidency. The protests were heavily repressed by police, leaving one dead, dozens injured and 23 journalists assaulted.

At the hearing, Marta Escurra, president of the Paraguayan Journalists' Forum (Fopep for its acronym in Spanish), said that the 23 wounded journalists were "intentionally and indiscriminately" assaulted by the National Police, and that their work equipment was also damaged.

According to Escurra, the police followed orders from their superiors to prevent any record of police repression against demonstrators, who protested against the then draft constitutional amendment that would give President Horacio Cartes the possibility of re-election.

Escurra cited cases of aggression against José Bogado, a photojournalist for the newspaper Última Hora, who was hit 18 times with rubber pellets, including one near the spine; Christian Nuñez, a HispanTV photojournalist who had serious contusions, one of them almost leading to the loss of his right eye; and Óscar Lovera, a journalist for UniCanal, who was hit by rubber bullets on his torso, among others.

Regarding Lovera, Escurra said that the journalist was afraid to report his case because "his media outlet is part of the media conglomerate owned by the Cartes family. He asked Fopep not to publish his case, fearing the consequences."

Escurra, who also attended the hearing on behalf of the Photojournalists Association of Paraguay, denounced that 65 percent of the Paraguayan media are owned by President Cartes' family. Government officials at the hearing rejected this information.

"Since 1989, which was the democratic opening, until today, we have never had such a monumental incident in terms of aggression and impunity with regard to journalists. The positive thing is that thanks to the Bureau (Inter-Institutional) we were able to make a joint complaint. Freedom of expression is a fundamental principle in a democracy, and if that principle is not respected we are in a failed state," Escurra said.

Marcelo Scappini– General Director of Human Rights at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also present at the hearing– said in defense of the State that after the incidents of March 31 and April 1, the president dismissed the Minister of the Interior and the Commander of the police, to avoid excesses in the use of public force.

"The State is diligently working on the total investigation of the events, according to the current regulations in the country," Scappini said, reiterating the State's commitment to clarifying the identity of the people who assaulted the journalists and those responsible for violence against state assets during the demonstrations.

In his address, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the IACHR, Edison Lanza, said that during a recent visit to the country, he had discussed with the Minister of the Interior of Paraguay the lack of police protocol and methodology to address social demonstrations.

"In democracy, journalists and protesters can not be seen as enemies, subversive, for expressing themselves. The demonstration is a legitimate vehicle," the Rapporteur stressed.

At the same time, he welcomed the decision of the State to promote an interinstitutional policy of prevention and protection of journalists, as it seems to be a fundamental measure for the role of the press in a democracy.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.