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IAPA team critical of Salvadoran government: delegation says handling of investigation into fire that destroyed Diario Latino's offices is proceeding too slow.

IAPA team critical of Salvadoran government

Delegation says handling of investigation into fire that destroyed Diario Latino's offices is proceeding too slow

An Inter American Press Association delegation investigating the fire that destroyed the offices of the opposition daily Diario Latino in El Salvador has issued a report sharply critical of the Salvadoran government's handling of the case.

However, the U.S. member of the delegation stressed that neither the paper nor the government appear in a hurry to determine whether the fire were an act of right-wing sabotage or an act of self-destruction, leaving the fire as much a mystery as the murder of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador in November 1989.

Meanwhile, the paper is back to publishing its normal eight-page edition and has received pledges of financial support from abroad, including $70,000 from a Swedish foundation and $20,000 from the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington.

The IAPA delegation consisted of Robert Cox, assistant editor of the News & Courier in Charleston, S.C., and Eduardo Ulibarri of La Nacion in San Jose, Costa Rica. They concluded in their three-and-a-half-page report issued in Spanish March 13 that the actions of the right-wing government of President Alfredo Cristiani in investigating the Feb. 9 fire "until now have been very slow and, from what the members of [the delegation] were able to determine, have not been conducted with the required diligence."

A clearly frustrated Cox confided to E&P after his return from El Salvador, where he had also served as an international observer in the March 10 legislative elections, that neither the government nor the paper's publisher had been as cooperative with the delegation as he had hoped.

"They [the government] put on a show for us to show how well they investigated this thing and of course that just showed us how well they didn't investigate," said Cox. "It didn't seem that they were willful, they just weren't very efficient. It just wasn't a professional, high-quality investigation. There was very little in the way of substance. Lots of photos, lots of charts, but they overlooked some elemental things."

The organization in charge of investigating the blaze is the Investigative Commission on Criminal Acts, the same body that has drawn international fire for its failure to bring to justice the killers of the six Jesuits. The IAPA report noted that the commission is answerable to the Cristiani government and called for the case to be "passed as soon as possible to the judicial authorities."

Cox explained that, while the left-wing paper is accusing the government of torching its offices, the government's contention is that the fire was "an inside job" at the paper, perhaps to escape from an oppressive debt, but the government failed to trace a witness that may have proven self-sabotage. "They may have a point, and they were even inept at doing that."

Cox reported that he and Ulibarri had met with Cristiani and that the president "was quite friendly but he wasn't able to give us anything."

Founded in 1890 and the dean of Salvadoran dailies, Diario Latino was acquired by a labor group in 1989 after its previous owners had abandoned it. The paper, heavily damaged in a 1986 earthquake, reportedly owes $1 million to Salvadoran banks, in addition to the estimated $400,000 damage sustained in the fire.

Cox said that Francisco Valencia, the paper's 29-year-old director, the Latin American equivalent of editor, is a dogmatic leftist who has been at odds with the managing editor over the direction of the paper. Valencia favors using the paper as a political organ rather than as a general-purpose daily.

The country's three leading dailies -- La Prensa Grafica, El Diario de Hoy and El Mundo -- are all oriented toward the right.

Cox said there are several theories circulating about the fire, including those circulating at the U.S. Embassy, which is supportive of having at least one opposition paper. One is that government agents or renegade rightists burned the paper for political motives, as the paper has alleged.

"But it may have been burned by the left wing for completely nonpolitical reasons, because it was costing money, or for reasons of control of the newspaper," Cox related.

Cox said that the authorities had failed to locate the paper's employee who was responsible for procuring gasoline for cleaning the press, stating at first that he had drunk himself to death and later that he had died in a traffic mishap.

Cox also noted that the paper had no insurance to collect and that it has exerted an effort to return to the streets, using a borrowed press at the University of El Salvador. At the same time, he pointed out, he could not see a government motive for torching the paper.

"It certainly wasn't in the government's interest to see this paper burned down," he remarked. "It had a very small circulation and it brought the left into the political arena instead of killing people, which is what the government wants."

Cristiani's government is involved in uneasy peace talks with the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), which has been waging a guerrilla war against a succession of governments since 1979. Cristiani's Arena Party won a majority of the seats in the legislative elections, but the political wing of the FMLN, participating in the electoral process for the first time, won seven seats.

Cox charged that the long-standing enmity between left and right is hampering the investigation of the fire. "Nobody's interested in the truth."

Adelina Reyes-Gavilan of the National Endowment for Democracy, a bipartisan group that receives funding from the U.S. Congress, said that the NED had approved the $20,000 requested by Diario Latino shortly before the fire to help the paper purchase newsprint.

"We've always been very concerned about freedom of the press, not only in El Salvador but elsewhere, and we're trying to be responsive to those needs," she said. "They [Diario Latino] operate on a shoestring. They are the only people in El Salvador who provide news space to the left, but they also provide space to other groups. An independent medium like Diario Latino can play an important role in strengthening the democratic process by promoting diverse discussion of diverse political views."

Cox agreed. "It's not much of a paper but it's something. The country needs it."

(Buckman is assistant professor of communication at the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette.)
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Title Annotation:Inter American Press Association
Author:Buckman, Robert
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Date:Apr 13, 1991
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