Open season on journalists in Paraguay

Impunity for the murder of journalists is hardly a new phenomenon in Latin America, but the ambush-style killings of four Paraguayan journalists in a year and a half has stirred domestic and international outrage and plunged an already beleaguered government into crisis.

Pablo Medina. Photo courtesy of ABC Color

Pablo Medina. Photo courtesy of ABC Color

The most recent killing was that of Pablo Medina, 53, an investigative reporter for the country’s leading daily, ABC Color, who was gunned down on the afternoon of Oct. 16 while returning from an assignment in Canindeyu department near the Brazilian border, a hotbed of marijuana cultivation and drug smuggling. He was shot four times in the chest and face with a 9-mm pistol and once with a shotgun by two men on motorcycle wearing camouflage fatigues.

One of his passengers, Antonia Almada, 19, also was hit and died en route to a hospital. Her younger sister, Juana, escaped unhurt.

Suspicion focused immediately on the mayor of the town of Ypehu, Vilmar “Neneco” Acosta, scion of a politically connected family suspected of large-scale marijuana cultivation and trafficking, as the intellectual author of the ambush. Juana Almada identified one of the gunmen as Acosta’s brother, Wilson. The two brothers are subjects of an Interpol warrant and are believed hiding in Brazil, where Vilmar Acosta has dual nationality and, reportedly, political friends.

Medina, who had worked for ABC since 1998, had received numerous death threats for his reporting on drug trafficking in Curuguaty department and had been under police protection for a time. His brother Salvador, a radio journalist, was murdered there in 2001, apparently by drug traffickers. His murder remains unsolved.

President Horacio Cartes, elected in 2013, decried the murders of Medina and Almada and told journalists, “I feel like we’ve all been killed.”

His government came under intense domestic and international pressure to bring the killers to justice. The Paraguayan Journalists Union, Catholic Church, Inter American Press Association, Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and the director of UNESCO all demanded action.

Paraguay is a landlocked country of 6.7 million people with an area the size of California. Courtesy of the CIA's World Factbook

Paraguay is a landlocked country of 6.7 million people with an area the size of California. Courtesy of the CIA’s World Factbook

A major break in the case came with the arrest on Dec. 8 of Arnaldo Cabrera, Vilmar Acosta’s driver. Reportedly embittered that he had been abandoned in a remote area without money or weapons and fearing for his own life, Cabrera confirmed that Wilson Acosta was one of the gunmen and that the other was the two brothers’ nephew, Flavio Acosta.

Cabrera said Vilmar Acosta planned Medina’s death in July, at his birthday party, surrounded by family. He claimed Acosta wanted revenge because Medina’s reporting had led to Vilmar Acosta and his father, Vidal, being convicted and imprisoned in 2011. Medina had reported that human remains were buried on the Acostas’ ranch. Investigators unearthed three skeletons.

Ironically, when Medina was gunned down, he was working on a story about pesticide contamination in local soybean plantations, not marijuana trafficking.

“It was a tragic event that has affected us very much,” said ABC reporter Natalia Daporta in an email. The paper carries daily updates on developments—or lack of them—in the investigation.

Public protests, a rarity in Paraguay until the recent advent of social media, erupted after Medina’s death, prompting the Congress in November to launch a 45-day investigation, which has been shrouded in secrecy. The lower house also impeached two Supreme Court justices on suspicion of having been overly lenient toward drug traffickers, and forced the resignation of a third. The justices had been instrumental in overturning a ban on Vilmar Acosta’s running for mayor because of his dual citizenship, and they released him from prison two days before he was elected mayor!

Medina had dubbed Congresswoman Cristina Villalba the drug dealers’ “godmother” and alleged she was Vilmar Acosta’s protector. Villalba admitted Acosta had telephoned her after Medina’s death to proclaim his innocence. She volunteered to acquiesce her legislative immunity to be investigated if requested by a judge; no judge has yet requested it.

Paraguayans, and international journalism organizations, are now watching to see how seriously the government seeks to extradite the Acostas from Brazil, whether the investigation will uncover their collusion with governmental officials and, if so, whether anything will be done.

“CPJ is encouraged by the initial progress made by Paraguayan authorities in the murder of Pablo Medina and Antonia Almada,” commented Carlos Lauria, Americas program coordinator for CPJ. “But authorities must now ensure that all those involved in the crime, including the mastermind, are brought to justice.”

Brazilian Attorney General Rodrigo Janot pledged on Dec. 16 to make every effort to capture the suspects.

Paraguay, a landlocked country of 6.7 million people with an area the size of California, has a long history of dictatorship and corruption. The country was ruled by the autocratic Gen. Alfredo Stroessner from 1954 until he was overthrown in 1989. Its nascent democracy has been unstable, and two presidents have been impeached and removed. Transparency International ranks Paraguay the third most corrupt country in Latin America after Haiti and Venezuela. It has long been notorious for smuggling operations, first of stolen automobiles and contraband cigarettes, and in recent years of guns and drugs.

ABC Color newspaper offices in Asunción, Paraguay (Photo by Robert Buckman)

ABC Color newspaper offices in Asunción, Paraguay. Photo courtesy of Robert Buckman

ABC Color, founded in 1967 by businessman Aldo Zucolillo, is the dean of the country’s press. It was closed during the last five year’s of Stroessner’s regime for its overly aggressive reporting of public wrongdoing. It sells about 29,000 copies daily through street-corner kiosks.

There are now only two other dailies: Ultima Hora, which was closed for its aggressive reporting and biting editorials and cartoons for 30 days in 1979, and the younger, business-oriented La Nación. All are published in the capital, Asunción.

There are a handful of privately owned television stations with news operations, which are more reactive than proactive. The country’s most influential medium remains radio.

Thus, it is no surprise that the other three journalists slain since 2013 were all radio journalists.

Marcelino Vásquez, director of the radio station Sin Fronteras (Without Borders) in Pedro Juan Caballero on the Brazilian border, was gunned down by two men on a motorcycle on Feb. 6, 2013.

Fausto Gabriel Alcaraz, a reporter for Radio Amambay in Pedro Juan Caballero, was shot 11 times, also by two men on a motorcycle, on May 16, 2014.

Three weeks later, on June 9, Edgar Fernández Fleitas, an attorney who hosted a radio program called Ciudad de la Furia (City of Fury) for Radio Belén in the southern city of Concepción, was shot to death at his office. A suspect was arrested later that month, but the motive was unclear.

For decades, the so-called Tri-Border area where Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina meet has long been a lawless zone frequented by smugglers, Nazi fugitives and Islamic terrorists. Its subtropical climate, fecund soil and porous borders have made Paraguay Latin America’s second-largest marijuana producer after Mexico.

Robert Buckman, Ph.D., is an associate professor of communication and SPJ chapter adviser at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Buckman worked at the U.S. Embassy in Paraguay from 1977-79, when Stroessner was cracking down on the press’ attempts to report on corruption. He visited the offices of ABC Color during a trip to Paraguay in 2013.

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Help us improve and protect journalism abroad

Dear supporters of international journalism,

The world of journalism continues to change rapidly. But while many in the industry debate business models, the latest data-mining software or the impact of the Facebook news feed, the threats and dangers faced by colleagues across the world remains the same.

Virtually no country remains untouched in its attacks to journalists and freedom of the press. As we witnessed during the events in Ferguson, Mo., even in our own back yard there is a long way to go in protecting journalists’ right to tell stories to the world, uncensored.

A group of more than 30 professionals have come together this year to revive the cause of the SPJ International Committee. Under a new structure, the SPJ International Community hopes to bring to light the ethical, political and social issues affecting reporters abroad. Our members are located and/or represent countries from the Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe and beyond.

Our new community structure will allow members more freedom and flexibility in the scope and goals of the group. We have divided the community into four subcommittees, which will focus on outreach, international SPJ chapters, freedom of the press/ethics issues and education. Given our community spirit, however, we may restructure or add more subcommittees according to the needs and feedback of the group.

Although the SPJ International Community may grow, change and adapt with time, our goals remain the same:

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 44 journalists have been killed in 2014 while performing their jobs; more than 200 were imprisoned in 2013; and hundreds have left their countries in exile due to threats to their lives.

We, the Society of Professional Journalists International Community, will put our hands, minds, hearts, contacts and skills together to ensure SPJ can become a beacon of light and hope to those aforementioned journalists who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in honor of the truth.

We are no longer an isolated profession. We live in a globalized society. We, the SPJ International Community, are committed to improve and protect journalism beyond the boundaries of our nations.

Our goals are global and our reach is wide.

Come join us.

Interested in taking part in the SPJ International Community? Email us at spjinternational@spj.org.

Connect with us on Twitter: @SPJ_IJC
Follow us on Facebook: facebook.com/SPJInternational

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SPJ now has an International Journalism Community!

SPJ_International-Committee_LogoI am excited to announce that SPJ has added a new community – the International Journalism Community - our third community since trying the concept out last year. The International Journalism Community joins the Freelance and Digital Communities as a new way to reach out to and connect our members.

The International Journalism community is being lead by Carlos Restrepo, a member of the St. Louis Pro Chapter, who has agreed to get things started. We’ve already heard from 15 or so interested volunteers, including SPJ members who were involved with the International Journalism Committee previously. We welcome their expertise, ideas and enthusiasm for this topic which seems to grow in importance each day.

Next steps:  Restrepo will email members who have indicated their interest and ask for their ideas and goals. Together the community will choose goals and draft a master plan for achieving those goals. If you’d like to be involved, contact Carlos directly. As things ramp up, follow the community on Twitter.

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Don’t forget the tilde: New Mexican president is Enrique Peña Nieto

By Robert Buckman

Because Mexico’s new president-elect, who will be sworn in on Dec. 1, is destined to be in our news for the next 6½ years, we should at least spell his name correctly. It’s Enrique Peña Nieto, not Enrique Pena Nieto.

I’ve conducted a two-day check of major news websites, with interestingly mixed results.  The AP, Reuters, USA Today and presumably other Gannett papers, ABC, CBS, NBC/MSNBC, Fox News, NPR, the Houston Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, The Washington Times and The Huffington Post are all doing it wrong.

But The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, CNN, Time, Newsweek/The Daily Beast and The Economist are doing it right.

Incredibly, The Miami Herald, which publishes a Spanish-language edition, El Nuevo Herald, and is supposed to know better, is doing it both ways! Its published reports from the AP have it wrong, while those from the McClatchy News Service spell it correctly. In one story alone, it was correct in the subhead and the lede, but wrong in the cutline and the teasers.

An interesting finding of this unscientific content analysis is that the same AP stories in which it is spelled without the tilde are published in The Washington Post and The Dallas Morning News with the tilde, which means the desk people can get it right if they choose to do so. So can the AP and Reuters people, for that matter, because each has a Spanish-language service in which they have to spell it correctly, so obviously they know how.

The Houston Chronicle’s website also has Spanish translations that spell it correctly.

So what’s the big deal over that tilde, ethnocentrists may snort. The big deal is that without it, the name “Pena” is as inaccurately spelled as Obana. In both cases, the misspelling also change the pronunciation. And we’re supposed to spell and pronounce names correctly in journalism, aren’t we?

About 15 years ago, I instructed the desks at the Mac-using Advocate in Baton Rouge and Daily Advertiser in Lafayette how to write El Niño instead of El Nino. They’ve been doing it right ever since. So it can be done. But their websites both have “Pena Nieto” because they defaulted to the AP for world news.

It’s really easy to make the “ñ” on a Mac. Hold down the option key, hit the N key, let go of both, hit the N again and voila, ñ.

Different PCs seem to have different systems. The most common one for the “ñ” is alt+164. Others have a directory of foreign characters, including Greek letters for mathematical formulas and I guess fraternity newsletters, stashed somewhere in the file folder. But it’s doable if you just find it.

The difference between using the tilde or omitting it is a difference not only in pronunciation, but often in meaning.

“Peña” (pronounced PANE-ya, for you broadcast folks) is a common Hispanic surname, i.e., Tony Peña Jr. of the Boston Red Sox. The common noun “pena” (PAY-na) means emotional pain, as in Siento pena por ti (roughly, I feel your pain) or pity, as in, Que pena (what a pity).

I heard NBC’s Kate Snow and all the NPR reporters pronounce Peña Nieto correctly, even as their websites spell it wrong.

Deleting the tilde also can have embarrassing consequences. For example, the word año means year, but the word ano means anus, so if you write “Feliz Ano Nuevo” to impress Hispanic friends next Jan. 1, you are literally wishing them a happy new asshole.

And to head something else off at the pass, don’t think you can get around the tilde problem simply by referring to Peña Nieto on second reference as “Nieto.” Wrong! Nieto is the matronymic, or his mother’s maiden name; Peña is his father’s surname. In Hispanic culture, people often go by both names, as a way to honor Mamá, as well as to distinguish between people with very common names, such as Juan García, who may choose to be identified as Juan García Echinique. Not as many of those around.

It’s purely a personal choice. The incumbent Mexican president chose to go by Felipe Calderón, and his predecessor by Vicente Fox. But their formal names are Vicente Fox Quesada and Felipe Calderón Hinojosa.

I won’t even get into accent marks now, which Time and The Economist do correctly, because the new president doesn’t have one. But the candidate who ran second, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has two. Just as well he lost!

I may be tilde-ing at windmills, but the above-listed media that are doing it correctly are proof that it can and should be done right. Unfortunately, I’ll bet this plea falls on a lot of blind eyes and stubborn minds.

Que pena.

Robert Buckman, Ph.D., is a journalism professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and the author of a reference book on Latin America.

 

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Texas photojournalist missing in Mexico

SPJ’s International Journalism Committee has recently learned of the disappearance of photojournalist Zane Plemmons.

According to the Knight Center’s Journalism in the Americas blog, Plemmons is a freelance photographer who was working for the Mexican newspaper El Debate when he disappeared in Nuevo Laredo a month ago.

The Knight Center describes Mexico as the most dangerous place in the Americas for journalists. It has created a map of recent attacks against members of the news media there.

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Honduran Radio Journalist Killed

Honduran radio journalist Alfredo Villatoro was kidnapped and killed this past week. His body was discovered Tuesday night. CNN reports he was the 22 journalist killed in the country since 2010.

The English language website Honduras News reports President Porfirio Lobo Sosa has offered a financial reward for anyone who has information concerning Villatoro’s murder. He worked for National Radio Honduras.

Carlos Lauría, the Committee to Protect Journalists‘ senior program coordinator for the Americas, said the flow of news in Honduras is being restricted by “a climate of unrelenting hostility toward Honduran journalists.”

SPJ’s International Journalism Committee joins its professional colleagues worldwide in condemning Villatoro’s kidnapping and murder.

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Al Jazeera English Forced to Leave China

Al Jazeera English reported on May 8 that China has refused to renew its correspondent’s press credentials and visa.

Melissa Chan has been AJE’s China correspondent since 2007, but the news organization has been forced to close its bureau in Beijing.

Salah Negm, director of news at Al Jazeera English, said AJE is “committed to our coverage of China. Just as China news services cover the world freely we would expect that same freedom in China for any Al Jazeera journalist.”

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French Journalist held by Colombian guerrillas

A 35-year-old French journalist is being held by Colombian guerrillas as local and international demands for his release grow.

The Colombian and French governments said Romeo Langlois was out with government  troops in a remote area of southern Colombia when they were attacked by the rebels leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.  According to reports, Langlois took a bullet in the arm, then ran toward the rebels, shouting that he was a journalist. He apparently feared being taken for a soldier. Four Colombian soldiers died in the attack.

An alleged FARC member said Langlois is being held as “a prisoner of war.”

The Colombian and French governments, the European Union and the Committee to Protect Journalists say journalists are non-combatants and under international law.

Colombia’s Foundation for Press Freedom or FLIP says Langlois’ capture is another demonstration of “the difficult conditions and the danger faced by journalists covering the armed conflict” in the country.

The FARC announced in February that it would no longer kidnap people and hold them for ransom. Last month, the FARC released 10 soldiers and police officers, some of whom had been held as long as 14 years.

 

 

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Gangs, Government and Journalism in El Salvador

An online newspaper in El Salvador is facing threats because of its stories about alleged negotiations between the government and criminal gangs.

The publication, El Faro, ran an article last week detailing a government deal to give certain benefits to jailed gang leaders like transfers to better prison facilities or even money if they would cut back on the violence.
El Salvador has the second highest homicide rate in the world (after Honduras) at 66 per 100,000 people and much of the killing is attributed to gangs.
In its stories, El Faro reported that after the alleged agreement was reached, only three murders were reported, down from an average of 14 per day.
In its article, El Faro reporters gave details of their conversation with a gang leader still on the streets. The gang member said murders planned for the very day that got the order to “calm down” were cancelled.
Imprisoned gang leaders did get transferred to another prison, but government officials deny striking any deal.
El Faro editor and founder Carlos Dada said in an email published by Spain’s El Pais newspaper that government sources have said that by publishing the article “El Faro’s risk level has greatly increased.”
Gangs have targeted journalists. In 2009, French documentary filmmaker Christian Poveda was killed in El Salvador after finishing an award-winning documentary, “La Vida Loca” on gang life in El Salvador.

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Ecuador’s President Promises to Pardon Journalists

This happened earlier in the week, but it’s worth mentioning briefly.

Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa said on Monday he would pardon the four newspapermen who were convicted of libeling him. The New York Times reported the president also plans to forgive $42 million in fines against the men and El Universo.

Correa said he never planned to bankrupt anyone but was simply seeking the truth. But one of the convicted men, Emilio Palacio, said Correa was forced to respond to mounting pressure from other governments and free press organizations.

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