Paraguayan journalist asked to reveal her sources in case about audio that reveal alleged government corruption

For four hours, Paraguayan investigative journalist Mabel Rehnfeldt was questioned at the Prosecutor's Office, where she was summoned as a witness on March 22, in Asunción. Rehnfeldt attended the judicial process about filtered audios that she published on her radio program between November and December 2017 on ABC Cardinal radio.

However, a large part of the questions from the prosecutors who conducted the session and the lawyers of those investigated in the judicial process, dealt with her techniques for practicing journalism and the origin of hersources, according to what the journalist said to Radio Ñandutí Digital. The journalist had to rely on article 29 of the National Constitution that protects the free exercise of journalism.

ABC Color reported that the audio clips published by Rehnfeldt on her program "A la gran 730" revealed alleged acts of corruption and influence peddling that were allegedly committed from government institutions and by government representatives. Her publication led to two important senators who are allegedly involved in the case, Óscar González Daher and Jorge Oviedo Matto, being voted out of office by Congress, according to what the site Última Hora reported. Both former senators are now accused by the Prosecutor General’s Office of aggravated passive bribery and influence peddling, the site reported.

"This was an investigation disguised as testimony, this was an interrogation where it seemed that I was being investigated and not the illicit ones that were denounced. (...) They did it in the light of day, the threat and the intimidation, they did it with all the lights on," Rehnfeldt told the Knight Center. "This has not happened since the time of stronismo (dictatorship of Paraguayan President Alfredo Stroessner that lasted from 1954 to 1989), something like this has not happened so openly."

Critics were quick to react. The Union of Journalists of Paraguay (SPP for its initials in Spanish) issued a statement in which it demanded respect for freedom of expression in the country and showed support for Rehnfeldt. “We are concerned that this act could become a strategy of intimidation toward the journalist and that a precedent is felt that limits the work and the future investigations of press workers,” the organization said according to ABC Color.

The Forum of Paraguayan Journalists (Fopep) also rejected what it considered a clear legal intimidation by the Prosecutor General’s Office toward the journalist from ABC Color and Radio ABC Cardinal, reported ABC Color.

Additionally, human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, the United Nations, the Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), and various associations of Paraguayan civil society have communicated with Rehnfeldt to offer her their support and solidarity, according to the journalist.

The government has even responded to the case. The Minister of the Supreme Court of Justice, Alicia Pucheta, and the Attorney General of the State, Sandra Quiñones, have ordered an audit of the performance of the prosecutors who conducted the interrogation of Rehnfeldt in the Prosecutor's Office, according to Última Hora.

According to Última Hora, the Attorney General's Office also said in a statement that freedom of expression constitutes an important pillar of democracy and freedom of the press is a fundamental right.

The Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the IACHR , Edison Lanza, said that the action of the prosecutors in the case of the recent interrogation of Rehnfeldt could set a negative precedent for the exercise of journalism and its sources, published ABC Color. That the prosecution has asked Rehnfeldt about her sources is a violation of the right to defense of the journalistic source, the Rapporteur said, according to the site.

"That will generate a more generalized effect for all of journalism and for all the people who want to reveal information. The informants also have to be protected and that will contribute to a climate of censorship, of inhibition, where important information is no longer going to circulate," the Rapporteur said.

Lanza also announced, according to the Paraguayan news website, that the IACHR is already monitoring the case and that it could intervene if the necessary guarantees are not provided at the national level to defend journalistic work, an exercise protected by the inter-American system of human rights and the Paraguayan Constitution.

"I do not want my colleagues to feel afraid, I do not want anyone to feel frightened, because if they manage to frighten us they will achieve silence and if they achieve silence, we will have a failed democracy," Rehnfeldt said.

The filtered audios published between November and December by Rehnfeldt publicly exposed an alleged influence peddling scheme managed from the Jury of the Prosecution of Magistrates (JEM), according to ABC Color. This body was chaired until the end of 2017 by González Daher, one of the senators voted out of office who will participate in the next general elections.

According to the journalist, the appearance and publication of the audios happened a few weeks before the internal elections of December 17, where candidates were elected in Paraguay that could run to be President of the Republic, governor, senator and deputy in the general elections of April 22.

The consequences of the publication of the audios, which led to Congress voting the senators out of office and the submission of other people to justice is something that had never happened in Paraguay, Rehnfeldt said. "The audios have confirmed that all the guarantees of our judicial system are failing," she concluded.