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Living dangerously: issues of Peruvian press freedom.

One can complain of many things in Latin America, but not of dull uniformity. From bird-watching to watching -- or enduring -- revolutions, the overriding impression gotten from Latin America is that of the paradoxical variety, the at times surreal singularity of events. As time goes by and a new century approaches, while Latin American countries like Peru manage to produce Fujimoris instead of Fukuyamas, one cannot avoid feeling that instead of marching toward the end of history, we are moving, floating or crawling toward its beginning.

Change -- all too often haphazard and dismantling by nature -- seems to be a constant feature in the political systems of Latin America. Whereas the inhabitants of most other regions in the world can recall perhaps just one or two major changes of political systems in their lifetimes, most Latin American baby-boomers have lived through a couple of democratic experiences and dictatorial experiments.(1) We have been exposed to a nominal tabula rasa -- to a purported new beginning -- on three, four or five different occasions, as waves of democratic regimes or autocracies have swept Latin America more or less each decade.

Unpredictable politics is just one of the reasons why Latin America is the continent where paradox often seems to dictate reality. As paradox creates a wide, patternless range of experiences, Latin America is often better understood through narrative rather than analytic categories. After ideologies and models will have proved once and again their insufficiency, both the people and the land will remain brimming with stories. These stories must be told in order to make sense of history. This is one of the reasons why literature and journalism are so important in Latin America, compared to other regions of the world. The press itself is a story too, sometimes as confusing or paradoxical, often as compelling, as the continent it covers.


The influence of the press in Latin America, especially during periods of democracy, is generally strong. Notions both new and traditional about the role journalism plays in society hold true; despite superficial similarities, these notions are different in many ways from those prevalent in the United States. It was Brazilian reporting on former President Fernando Collor's alleged corruption that launched the momentous process that eventually ended in Collor's resignation. In Argentina, the investigative reporting on corruption in the Menem-Yoma family, especially that of journalist Horacio Verbitsky, greatly ruffled and irritated an otherwise smug Menem regime, and in the end made it much more cautious and sensitive about its own accountability. In Colombia, certain journalists and papers, such as El Espectador, were repeatedly the victims of assassination and bombing campaigns carried out by the drug trafficking mafia against the Colombian state and society. Yet their determination to hold ground in the unlikely exchange of voice against bullet, print against bomb, also held together the national will to resist, even at its weakest.

In Peru, after Alberto Fujimori's 5 April 1992 coup d'etat abruptly ended the 12-year-old democratic system, the independent press -- rather than the political parties -- led the opposition against the dictatorship. Before that, every important drug-trafficking organization and every human-rights atrocity had been exposed in the press well before the formal legal authorities began to acknowledge, much less to deal, with the case.

Throughout Latin America, journalism shares certain common characteristics. The best journalists normally see themselves as waging a life-long "war by other means." journalism, as trench warfare or as perpetual crusade, is the paradigm -- and the common stereotype -- of the profession.

At the same time, Latin American journalism has suffered from deep-seated contradictions. These contradictions affect all aspects of society -- religious, legislative and judicial -- that involve the confrontation between the codified, formal world and a less explicit reality. As Luis Miro Quesada, editor-in-chief and publisher of Lima's El Comercio until the early 1970s, used to say in properly medieval wording, "Journalism is the noblest profession or the vilest trade." Under a common roof and with the same tools, both extremes of journalism converged in glorious virtue and degrading sin, common to markedly dualistic cultures. The chasm between the narrow and demanding standards of the ideal and the often distorted, but always strong pull of the more material aspects of reality, is a central part of the dynamics of Latin American journalism. The history of the last 20 years of Peruvian journalism mirrors that dialectic of Latin American journalism, some of its current structural limitations and the strong influence that reported and nonreported events have had on journalism itself.


In 1974, Peru had already lived through five years of a unique experiment in Latin America: a leftist military regime attempting to transform society radically from above along socialist lines.(2) A thorough agrarian reform had been enacted; co-ownership between the state and the workers in the industrial sector was mandated; the so-called strategic industries had been nationalized; and an experiment at "social property" was about to be undertaken.

The Peruvian "revolution" had, in fact, less than two years of life ahead of it. General Juan Velasco, its leader, was ousted in August 1975. From then until 1979, the military regime led by General Francisco Morales Bermudez undertook a laborious process of disengagement, both from the leftist trend and from government itself, which led to a new constitution and to civilian rule in 1980. During 1974, however, much of the press was taken over, the effects of which still play a role in the Peruvian press today.

At that time, the military regime appeared stronger than ever, and the opposition seemed fragmented, diminished and obsolete. Some essential contradictions of the regime were suppressed through intense propaganda, harsh intimidation and threats against the press. Foremost among these contradictions was the regime's avowed aim to redistribute income and decision-making power. The regime's supposed wresting of power from the traditional oligarchy contradicted the fact that the armed forces -- the agent of change -- had become a vertical oligarchy of unprecedented power.

The military's seeming popularity was due in part to its radical, propagandistic language, promise of reforms and the allegiance of a substantial sector of the intelligentsia. For example, Expreso, one of the major newspapers, was expropriated by the military regime. It was turned over to the control of pro-government journalists and became an aggressive, vociferous supporter of the regime. General Velasco called its journalists his "mastiffs. " Expreso's publisher, Manuel Ulloa, was in exile; and Manuel D'Ornellas, one of the paper's leading journalists, was stripped of his Peruvian citizenship. The other newspapers, mainly El Comercio and La Prensa, understandably, treaded cautiously.

On 17 June 1974, the military regime closed Caretas, Peru's leading magazine, and sent its editor Enrique Zileri into exile. The mordant irony of articles in Caretas went far beyond what the military regime was willing to withstand. The protests against the closing were louder from outside the country than within. However, at the same time, tolerance for arbitrariness in the name of social reform was widespread, even in the international arena. Even the New York Times, while editorializing against Zileri's deportation, added that it could only "tarnish the considerable achievements" of the military regime.(3)

On 27 July 1974, the military regime expropriated the country's eight major newspapers in a carefully coordinated surprise move.(4) Anti-riot paramilitary police simultaneously occupied most of the newspapers' premises. Luis Miro Quesada, an old passionate, crusading journalist who had led El Comercio through many of the country's more contentious years, was kept under house arrest. Oddly enough, the military considered this a gesture of respect, as military officials wanted to save him the pain and humiliation of watching his paper taken over by police troops.

The expropriation of the press, including all television and radio stations, was a logical step to take in the Velasco regime's mindset. The regime advocated giving the means of production and distribution to socialist or cooperative organizations according to the perceived "social interest." Thus, it followed that the means of communication should also serve that so-called social interest. Press freedom in the regime's interpretation had actually meant entrepreneurial freedom and ownership -- by minority interest groups -- of powerful means of pressure. As with the case of the political parties, subject to constant attack by the regime as parasitic intermediaries between the people and government, the newspaper owners were accused of distorting and redirecting public opinion to serve the interests of the oligarchies they represented.

Henceforth, as one of the goals of the Peruvian revolution was to effect "structural changes" in the press, each of the newspapers was supposed to be assigned to a different social sector. El Comercio, for instance, was designated for the peasant sector; La Prensa, for the reformed industrial sector.

Government-appointed bureaucrats, however, were the ones who took over -- supposedly provisionally -- as the papers' editors. The fact that some of these bureaucrats were prestigious intellectuals testified to the widespread backing that a critical segment of the Peruvian intelligentsia gave to the Velasco regime. This was not only evident among Peruvian intellectuals, but also among U.S. and other Latin American academics. The allure of a thorough but bloodless structural reform of society tended to soften a more critical approach.

At El Comercio, for example, the first government-appointed editor was Hector Cornejo Chavez, a former Christian Democratic presidential candidate and respected law professor. At the time, Cornejo was one of Velasco's most trusted advisers. At La Prensa, the new editor was philosopher Walter Penaloza. At Ultima Hora, Ismael Frias, a former Trotskyite, was designated editor, although he was unceremoniously removed when he turned out to be more liberal than intended.

Not surprisingly, the papers became competing mouthpieces for the military regime. Further arrests and deportations of remaining independent journalists were justified by the military as the revolution's need to defend itself. Government-appointed editors such as Frias, and later Hugo Neyra, editor of Correo, were removed after manifestations of independence and unruliness. As with so many other revolutions, the intermediate, bureaucratic stage became permanent -- an end in itself. Peasant and worker participation remained a token, often pathetic gesture. A few leaders of government-engineered organizations sat on boards of directors, only to rubber-stamp the orders from the generals.

After General Velasco was ousted, even the pretense of having the papers represent various social sectors was dropped. Faithful submission to the regime was the only condition demanded by the military, and governmet-appointed editors complied. Under the new order, corrupted intellectuals proclaimed their undying loyalty to General Morales Bermudez, only to be removed at the whim of even secondary power brokers. The social-engineering enthusiasm of the Velasco years had been substituted by a nouveau riche arrogance, no less authoritarian and sometimes more demanding than before. The new oligarchy, based on the military elite, was suddenly not only enjoying the full perquisites of power without accountability, but also regarding those outside the circle of power with an almost feudal disdain.

The fawning official press reinforced the arrogance of that dictatorial power. This may have been why the military regime's tolerance to public criticism diminished, even after it committed itself to returning power to civilian rule. Thus, for instance, when Caretas magazine -- reopened after laborious pressure on the military regime -- printed an article about the appalling conditions of a public hospital in Lima, the health minister, an air force general by the name of Fernando Miro Quesada, under whose responsibility the hospital was, demanded that the magazine be shut down again.(5) The was promptly granted his wish.

In journalism, the end result of the Peruvian revolution was the transition from editor to butler-to-the-regime. Similar results, not so instantly visible, happened in areas where the social engineers had gone about their work. In other realms, however, such as agrarian and industrial reform, one could even sympathize with the aims of the Velasco government -- and diagnose its ultimate failure as a result of faulty engineering from inadequate design to poor development to incompetent execution. In the case of the press, however, it was hard not to see the mistakes of the measures from the outset. In retrospect, one can see that this was one of the first areas in which calculations of oligarchical power were much more important than social-reform considerations in making decisions -- a manifestation of later decadence.

Parts of an independent press managed, however, to survive throughout the late 1970s. Reduced during the first part of the military regime's juggernaut to the journalistic equivalent of a shaky guerrilla campaign, the press became increasingly more important until -- by the end of the regime -- its influence far exceeded its circulation. As Caretas and Oiga led an uncertain existence, either publishing precariously or being shut down at various times, other publications endeavored to fill the gap.(6) The most remarkable was a humor magazine by the name of Monos y Monadas, which repeatedly pierced the fake solemnity of the dictatorship with some of the more scathing satire -- both in text and caricatures -- ever published in a country where political humor has evolved into an art form. Monos y Monadas attacked soft spots in the military regime's armor; and so, perhaps for fear of incurring even more ridicule, the military never shut it down. The magazine's importance in dismantling the structure of intimidation and bluffing, which propped the military regime to such a large extent, has probably been underestimated.


As soon as a democratically elected civilian regime took power in July 1980 -- six years to the day after the government seizure of the newspapers -- newly elected President Fernando Belaunde returned them and the television and radio stations to their owners. Some, like Luis Miro Quesada of El Comercio and Pedro Beltran of La Prensa, had died in the meantime, and control of the papers had been taken over by family members. Yet, El Comercio promptly regained its distinctive character, minus Miro Quesada's combative style. La Prensa, a pioneer of the free-market doctrine that was beginning to dominate economic policy in Latin America, as well as a pioneer of U.S.-style journalism, folded soon thereafter.

On the other hand, certain journalists and entrepreneurs with ties to the previous military regime founded newspapers, such as La Republica. Some of these -- mostly the screaming tabloids -- surprisingly survived. Their existence can be seen as a testimony to some of the useful civilian applications of the propaganda skills acquired during the 1970s.(7)

Democracy lasted 12 years in Peru, from July 1980 until 5 April 1992. This period ranks as one of the more momentous in the country's history, as several extraordinary actors and factors seemed to appear out of nowhere to influence the country's destiny. Overall, the economy deteriorated and in the end virtually collapsed: At the close of the 1980s, Peruvians had a per capita income equal to that of 1956. In the span of a few dizzying years, the economy had backtracked 30 years, and the income levels of young Peruvians -- the single most important demographic group in the country -- had returned to those of their grandparents.

As a younger, urbanized population -- mostly in shanty towns -- groped to survive and find its own identity, other factors were creating a conflictual, bloody environment in the country. The Shining Path insurrection grew substantially -- both in reality and in the public perception -- from unreal exoticism into a matter of life or death for vast regions of the nation. Drug trafficking, mostly of cocaine, became the single most important economic activity in Peru. Those were eventful yet tragic, fate-laden years for the country, and they made for new journalistic opportunities, which were seized with varying degrees of success. journalism in Peru during those years was rich and diverse.(8) Of the many papers created, many foundered, but a few -- representing a wide range of views -- or no particular views, managed to survive. Humor magazines did worse than under the military -- buttressing the argument that laughter resounds better when suppressed.

In contrast to the military government, the new democratic regime took pains to guarantee untrammeled press freedom. It generally followed and respected that principle, even when doing so led to strange consequences. The most remarkable case was the publication of El Diario, a paper which became the Shining Path's mouthpiece and continued to be published and sold openly through the 1980s, even when the internal war had virtually reached every province in Peru.(9)

Originally, El Diario had been the offshoot of a leftist magazine by the name of Marka, which had nothing in common with the Shining Path. In the early 1980s, however, it was gradually infiltrated and then taken over by the Shining Path. It continued to publish very openly until 1986 and 1987, but beginning in 1983, more and more parts of the country were placed under military authority. Those regions became de facto dictatorships. Clandestine arrests, disappearances, punitive actions against the civilian population and outright assassinations were punctuated by the occasional ambush or military confrontation -- all manifestations of the internal war. The contrast between the savagery of the internal war and the practice of press freedom at all costs meant that the Shining Path had the chance to publish its version of the events, its party documents and chiefly its propaganda alongside the other reports. For journalists, analysts and historians, El Diario became one of the few reliable and relatively accessible sources for an otherwise mysterious organization. Within a larger context, however, El Diario's freedom to publish and distribute underscored the confusion -- which bordered schizophrenia -- with which the Peruvian state addressed this post-Maoist insurgency in the 1980s.

In the end, however, the war reached El Diario too. In the late 1980s it suffered bombing attempts; then its offices were seized by the police. Its last avowed editor, Luis Arce, left Peru in the late 1980s.(10) Janet Talavera, his deputy, was eventually jailed. She was killed in May 1992, days after Fujimori's coup d'etat, when government troops seized by force the Canto Grande prison grounds. El Diario's clandestine editors had been arrested a short time before, and, for the first time since the internal war had begun, the paper ceased to publish. By the end of 1992, however, it had resumed clandestine publication, and does so to this date.

The Exposure of Corruption & the Role of Investigative Journalism

There were other cases of warped expressions of the press, but for the most part the Peruvian press became a central factor in the dynamics of democracy during the 1980s, as in the other South American nation-states emerging from dictatorships. In this dynamic context, investigative journalism began to flourish, exposing widespread corruption, which tends to be one of the legacies of authoritarian regimes that lack any kind of accountability.

During the 1970s, a lack of accountability, coupled with state intervention in the economy and access to international loans caused corruption to flare up to unprecedented levels. In addition, the growing cocaine boom in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia exponentially increased the functional rot in those countries -- although somewhat differently in each case. In Peru, the highly centralized nature of the state -- inherited from the Spanish colonial times when the Peruvian vice-royalty was the bureaucratic center for most of South America's Spanish possessions -- meant that it was very difficult, as it had been traditionally, to achieve any degree of business prosperity without close connections with the state. Thus, drug traffickers in Peru tried -- with no small degree of success -- to infiltrate the state at the higher levels, in marked difference to the more decentralized approach of the Colombian traffickers, who only tried to neutralize the state and to prevent it from meddling in their affairs.

The first notorious case that was exposed through the persistence of the media was that of Carlos Langberg. He was a mysterious man of violent temper, reputed to have impressive wealth. He had close relationships with several top-ranking generals in the military government, and after the transition to democracy, he became more and more influential with Apra, the main opposition party. He was also arrested twice in connection with international investigations of cocaine smuggling. This fact was virtually unknown, however, and fear prevented a reasonable dissemination of that knowledge by the few who did know.(11) Langberg also published the short-lived paper PM, which included some extraordinary rambling commentaries. At the time, close to half a million copies were often distributed daily for free.

The weekly magazine Caretas displayed one of the first instances of thorough investigative journalism -- in contrast to traditional crusade journalism -- with its exposure of Langberg's involvement with cocaine trafficking. Corruption flourished in the nether area between the formal, legal organization of the country and its social reality, but it needed to remain hidden -- if only in a metaphorical way -- in order to survive. Thorough exposure, therefore, forced even those parts of the state that had been unwilling to become involved to acknowledge the existence of the corruption and then to act to eradicate it.

In 1985, a roughly similar case happened in which another drug trafficking organization, headed by Reynaldo Rodriguez Lopez, was also exposed by Caretas. The organization had extensively infiltrated the state, especially the security forces.

The investigations and prosecutions that resulted from the exposes -- however incomplete and in the end frustrated -- curtailed, at least for some time, the power of drug-trafficking organizations bent on subverting the state from within. They also helped democracy to gain additional breathing space, when the very process of governance was becoming problematic.

Exposure of the Internal War. The Shining Path

The country's internal war, growing from exoticism into a threat to national survival by the late 1980s, grew in size and intensity in the midst of a disjointed society, afflicted by a worsening economic crisis and corruption. For the press, the difficulties inherent in informing the public on dramatically changing news were compounded by their own need to make sense of the events. Very few papers or journalists were able to do so in print; their voices were mostly drowned in the partisan infighting that also afflicted the press. Yet, however advocacy-oriented, most journalists did not cease to report, and therefore to learn -- for which they also paid a heavy price.

In January 1983, for example, the Andean province of Ayacucho, ravaged for almost three years by the Shining Path's guerrilla, sabotage and terrorist actions, was put under military rule. Late that month, a group of eight journalists, hiking to Uchuraccay, a desolate place high in the Andes, were attacked by the villagers there and gruesomely lynched. The killings shocked the nation and traumatized Peruvian journalists -- in a peculiar, contentious way.

Many journalists and some papers such as La Republica clung to conspiracy theories. On the other hand, Mario Vargas Llosa, the writer who headed an independent commission to investigate the killings, eventually concluded that the Uchuraccay villagers themselves had killed the journalists, mistaking them for Shining Path activists. Vargas Llosa was then bitterly attacked.

Over the years, the Uchuraccay tragedy was re-examined, partially replayed from inside provincial court rooms to in the national press. This was in part collective psycho-drama, in part exorcism, and -- in a much larger sense -- a reflection of the war dividing the country but still poorly understood. Only since the late 1980s and the early 1990s, when leftist ideological stereotypes became obsolete, the actual nature of the war became clearer, and the number of victims of violence -- under so many different circumstances -- became so much greater, did the conspiracy theories begin to fade into the past. Ten years after their deaths the sacrifice of the eight journalists finally began to be seen in a different perspective: People began to interpret the event as a sudden tragedy befalling audacious, heroic reporters, moving with faulty information into the fire zone and treacherous terrain of an internal war, as it reached and wreaked primitive mountainous communities that felt their very existence threatened.

A number of other journalists also died after this incident. They were killed either by the security forces or by the Shining Path, in widely differing circumstances. However, as the ways of the internal war and its combatants became better known and understood by both journalists and the rest of the intelligentsia, Uchuraccay's disquieting, contentious mystery was not repeated, even when the killers attempted, as they usually did, to deny their crime.

Human Rights Violations Involving he Press

The journalists who were killed mirrored the victimization of the Peruvian population at large by the war. Journalist Eduardo Ayala disappeared in 1984 after entering a navy infantry base in the Andean city of Huanta, notorious as a center of mass torture and assassinations. Journalist Hugo Bustios was also killed in 1987 in Huanta, ambushed and shot by, an army death squad.(12) Journalist Barbara d'Achille was killed by Shining Path guerrillas in Huancavelica, a neighboring province to Huanta, in 1989 after the truck in which she was riding had been stopped in a desolate spot of the Andes. Television journalist-producer Alejandro Perez was slain in June 1992 when a Shining Path truck-bomb demolished the installations of Lima's channel 2, where Perez worked.

Investigative journalists inevitably became concerned with the mechanics and perpetrators of human-rights atrocities. They tried to find out why they were committed and who committed them -- the Shining Path or the security forces? The adversarial nature of the press -- expected and even welcomed in normally functioning democratic societies -- was markedly increased by the nature of the war.

The security forces conducted both overt and covert forms of counter-insurgency -- the latter being the source of human-rights atrocities and other crimes. They wished the rest of society, including the press, to acknowledge and applaud the existence of only the overt forms of counter-insurgency, while ignoring the dark, criminal side, privately acknowledging it as a necessary evil. The independent press nevertheless continued to investigate human-rights violations and cases of corruption, and to expose them. At the same time, most journalists viewed those abuses as a depraved distortion of the Peruvian state and society's legitimate right to defend itself from the attack of a fanatical, murderous-insurgency.

The central fact -- notwithstanding the press's constant, mostly fruitless search, for the noble officer, the clean counter-insurgent -- was that the security forces operated under counter-insurgency doctrines that were in essence incompatible with any form of liberal democracy. On the other hand, the commitment to the democratic system remained central in even the most aggressive human rights-related reporting in the press.

In retrospect, one can see that those magazines and papers that were most uncompromising in investigating human-rights violations -- Caretas, Si, La Republica and some television programs, such as "En Persona" -- proved also to be the tougher defenders of the democratic system after Fujimori's 1992 coup d'etat. On the other hand, those papers and electronic media stations -- such as Expreso and Channel 2 and Channel 5 -- that had hesitated to pursue investigations, contending that it would sabotage the system, turned out to be either lukewarm opponents of the coup, or supporters of it.


Fujimori's 5 April 1992 coup d'etat -- commonly described as a self-coup -- ended democracy in Peru after 12 difficult, torturous but also amazingly resilient years. Dramatic and unexpected as it was, the initial scenario was familiar. In Spring 1992 -- a year ago -- troops were fanning out all over Lima; the presidents of the Senate and the House of Representatives were under house arrest. The former president of the country, Alan Garcia, barely avoided arrest, and many of his former ministers were seized by combat-ready soldiers who deployed firepower capabilities that were exaggerated even by tropical standards.

Considering recent history, with the memories of General Velasco still vivid for many journalists and owners of the media, one would have thought that the press would have been thoroughly unified in rejecting and confronting the coup. That was, however, not the case.

During the first hours of the coup, as people tuned in to their radios, they were treated to two widely different perspectives of what was happening.(13) Radio Programas del Peru, the most powerful radio station, owned by the same family as of proprietors of Peru's biggest television station -- Channel 5 -- limited itself to broadcasting Fujimori's communiques and soothing comments. Radio Antena Uno, on the other hand, opened its broadcasts to members of the closed parliament and to people protesting the coup. At two o'clock in the morning, the broadcasters informed listeners that police were entering the station and continued speaking until the microphone was literally wrenched from their hands.

For the first time since 1974, troops occupied the newspaper buildings, as well as those of the three most influential weekly magazines. Military censors sat in the newsrooms and forbade the publication of anything without their approval. Some papers, such as La Republica, published white pages in protest for the first two or three days after the coup. Others only printed feeble protests. The magazines' offices were virtually empty because it was Sunday, but soon thereafter their journalists began to picket their own offices and to prepare emergency editions.

As Radio Antena Uno went off the air because of the coup, the radio station Radio Red began to broadcast protests against the coup. They were able to do so for almost one day, until police forces penetrated their offices and arrested everyone they found inside.

I was seized by army intelligence operatives several hours before and was taken to a clandestine detention place. As international protests of unexpected intensity began to flood the brand new dictatorship, Fujimori had to acknowledge my detention and transfer me to a police prison, where I met the recently arrested radio journalists and two others from the small paper Idolo. After a continuous outpouring of protests, mainly from international human-rights organizations, we were all freed on 7 April.

At the same time, troops and censors were withdrawn from the newspaper buildings; and soon after on the same day, Fujimori arrived at El Comercio, escorted by the army chief, to apologize to the editors and publishers of the paper. The journalists from the weeklies marched on their offices and were able, to their amazement, to occupy them without opposition by the troops, who left almost immediately. That day ended the explicitly repressive part of the new dictatorship. From then on, the Fujimori regime alleged that it was not a dictatorship, mentioning, among other things, the existence of unrestricted press freedom in Peru.

At least at the beginning, Fujimori's regime did not need to enact any repressive measures against the press. Most of the media collaborated, grudgingly or willingly under a grudging appearance, with the coup. All six television channels supported the coup. The owners of the television stations had been summoned by Fujimori to the army headquarters a few hours before the coup. There they watched Fujimori's taped speech announcing the coup and were asked to abet it without protests. They agreed.

The newspapers, with the exception of La Republica and El Comercio, to a limited extent, were either complacent or supportive. One paper, Expreso, which had been first expropriated by General Velasco in the 1970s, and whose owners had suffered bitterly at the time, became the unofficial voice of the regime.

The clearest exceptions were the most prominent weekly magazines. All three of them -- Caretas, Oiga and Si -- and Meridiano, a smaller magazine that folded soon thereafter, maintained -- and still maintain at great cost -- a strong, relentless opposition to the coup and to the new dictatorship. The weeklies were tolerated because of the international pressure for freedom of the press and because their very existence supported the government's contention that unrestricted press freedom existed in Peru. Yet these were not the only reasons: The main reason the weeklies were tolerated was their limited circulation. The biggest, Caretas, has a circulation that rarely exceeds 40,000 copies. The smallest hovers around only 10,000 copies.

Normally, their readers are mostly in the middle- and upper-middle class sectors of the population. The weeklies have a high degree of influence on their audiences, and this is augmented by the fact that several of their better stories are followed up by the daily press and television. Under the exceptional circumstances attending Fujimori's coup, however, the magazines' readers in the middle and upper classes, mostly supporters of the coup, usually disagreed with their magazines. They continued to buy the magazines, as their desire for fresh information -- and their wariness of disinformation -- was stronger than their disagreements, but the editorial influence of the magazines began to dwindle.

At the same time, neither the papers, television nor radio stations at all echoed the magazines' stories, in which the regime was portrayed in an unfavorable or embarrassing position. As a result, their indirect influence on other sectors of the population was effectively prevented. Yet, despite continuous pressure and, in some cases, blatant harassment, the weekly magazines maintained a solid opposition and produced some of the best examples of that very risky genre: engage journalism.

There was an additional, remarkable dimension to journalism's role in the coup, as practiced by the magazines. As the formal opposition to the coup, represented by political parties and trade unions, had all but collapsed, the magazines began to f collective bulletin board, forum and, to a large acquire the role of collective bulletin board, forum and, to a large extent, spirit of the resistance to the Fujimorri regime for the still dispersed, non-cohesive opposition. This is in many ways reminiscent of the samizdat press and of the dissidents' role in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, where organized opposition had also been wiped out.

In retrospect, it is evident that the Fujimori coup d'etat contributed new perspectives, rather than provided exceptions, to the usual conflicting relationship between a free press and a dictatorship. In Peru as elsewhere, a free press and a dictatorship are incompatible, and in the end, a vigorous free press will either be repressed by a dictatorship, or it will topple the government. Yet an astute, risk-taking dictatorship is able to tolerate a non-threatening or favorable press. Even the opposing press can be tolerated to a certain degree, as long as it is isolated and does not reach the critical mass, which would likely affect the regime's stability. Their very existence enhances the image of the dictatorship. They can be held up as the best indication of the regime's supposed love for democracy. The existence of one or a few dissenting publications, therefore, does not guarantee that democracy exists.


The remaining question is why the Peruvian press as a whole, having the benefit of the experience of the traumatic Velasco era, was such a poor defender of the constitutional order and democracy, and in all too many cases a conniving accomplice of its destruction. The more obvious reasons are, of course, those pertaining to the failure of democracy to address the key problems of the country. Fear of the growing Shining Path insurgency also weighed heavily for some in their decisions to support Fujimori's coup. In comparison, however, both these reasons are secondary.

Most of the Peruvian press has not even begun to make the crucial separation of roles and functions between editor and publisher. All too often, a publication or broadcast purposely does not oppose the owners' other business interests. In the case of the television channels, for instance, most owners have extensive business interests elsewhere that depend to a large extent on good relations with the government in order to succeed.

In the magazines' case, however, the situation is different. In two of the three magazines -- Caretas and Oiga -- their owners do not have any significant investments outside the magazines themselves; in addition, they are full-time journalists. In the third case -- that of Si -- there has been a de facto separation between the editing and publishing parts of the magazine. Moreover, they are small enough as businesses that the cost-benefit analysis of defending press freedom and democracy is balanced by the relatively small impact of financial reprisals or even of an eventual closure of the magazine.

It is in the example set by these publications that there lies some hope for democracy and a free press in Peru. These publications are respected due to their history of battling hard with intelligent, fearless journalism. With the same approach, the current battle might yet be won in the end. (1.) This experience regarding political change excludes Cubans and Mexicans at one end of the spectrum, and Costa Ricans and Venezuelans at the other. (2.) There were other attempts in Latin America at organizing leftist military regimes. The short lived rule of General juan Jose Torres in Bolivia was the most important attempt at following the "Peruvian path." General Omar Torrijos of Panama also proclaimed himself, rather superficially, as a disciple of General Velasco Alvarado, the military leader of the Peruvian "revolution." However, most of the military regimes that took power over most of the hemisphere in the 1970s were of a clearly opposite, even inimical trend. (3.) New York Times, editorial, 19 June 1974, p. 44 (New York Times Index,1974, vol. 11, p. 1951.) (4.) The eight major newspapers at the time were El Comercio, La Prensa, La Cronica/La Tercera, Ojo, Correo, Expreso, Extra and Ultima Hora. (5.) The pressure on the military regime came both from international organizations, such as the Inter-American Press Association, and even from some regime-supporters among the intelligentsia, such as Carlos Delgado, executive director of the National System of Support to Social Mobilization (SINAMOS), who was Velasco's foremost speech writer and was regarded as the chief ideologue of the Peruvian "revolution." (6.) Oiga was another influential weekly, which -- after initial sympathy to General Velasco -- became part of the opposition when the newspapers were seized. (7.) Strangely enough, the roles were eventually reversed, when after Fujimori's 1992 coup, La Republica took a strong stance in defense of democracy, while Expreso became a semi-official supporter of the dictatorship. (8.) The article refers here especially to print journalism. Save one or two exceptions, electronic journalism was unremarkable. (9.) For recent, English-language reading on the Shining Path, see David Scott Palmer, ed., The Shining Path of Peru (New York: St. Martin's, 1992) and Simon Strong, Shining Path: Terror and Revolution in Peru (New York: Times Books, 1992). (10.) In Belgium, Arce still publishes an international edition of El Diario. (11.) For further reading on Langberg, see Caretas from February to December 1982. (12.) Although the army killers were later identified by Caretas, the magazine for which Hugo Bustios worked, their names remain unpublished to this day. (13.) To a significant, although to a lesser degree than in Colombia, the radio has become the best way to access instant information.
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Title Annotation:Power of the Media in the Global System
Author:Gorriti, Gustavo
Publication:Journal of International Affairs
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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