Fujimori tries to calm media: Peru's President insists he will protect freedom of expression, but not all journalists are convinced

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PRESIDENT Alberto Fujimori has intervened to defuse an increasingly bitter dispute over press freedom in Peru. Ten reporters are languishing in jail or have fled abroad, a further 20 have prosecutions hanging over them and journalists have been marching through the streets of Lima to demand an end to the persecution. Several of the cases have been taken up by foreign organisations, including the PEN Club.

Mr Fujimori, who assumed sweeping powers in a 'palace coup' a year ago today, told representatives of the Peruvian College of Journalists last week that he would personally move to protect freedom of expression and prevent intimidation of journalists. He also said he hoped three reporters who have been in prison for several months would be out by Easter. He believed in unrestricted press freedom, but the courts had to apply the law and there were times when they failed to do it correctly. 'In the application of the strategy against terrorism, errors can occur.'

The Peruvian College of Journalists said it was satisfied with these assurances, but others are not so sure. Many reporters say there has been a subtle campaign of pressure on the media over the past year, which has made prior censorship unnecessary. 'They let us say what we like all right,' said one leading journalist yesterday. 'It's when we do so that the trouble starts.'

This can include the withdrawal of official advertising, denial of access to information and legal pressures.

The courts have shown little inclination to defy the authorities since Mr Fujimori sacked all the leading judges after his palace coup, and the legislation they are called on to implement was forced through by the President after he closed Congress.

Imprisoned journalists are held under the catch-all provisions of 'apology for crime' laws introduced by the President after he decided existing laws gave too much protection to suspected members and supporters of the Maoist Shining Path guerrilla group.

The security forces have since scored some impressive victories over Shining Path, but it has become hard to provide detailed coverage of operations. Magno Sosa, a reporter who visited a Shining Path camp, was arrested and held in prison for six months without being charged. He now lives in Venezuela.

The libel laws have also been given a great deal of play recently. The main target has been the Lima news magazine Caretas, noted for its ferocious, sometimes indiscriminate attacks on the government. The editor, Enrique Zileri, was rash enough to fall foul of Vladimiro Montesinos, one of the President's closest advisers, who heads the National Intelligence Service and is widely regarded as the eminence grise of the regime. Mr Zileri has been given an 18- month suspended sentence for libelling Captain Montesinos (it was increased from 12 months when he appealed), his possessions were impounded when he failed to pay a pounds 4,900 fine and he must obtain permission to travel.

A similar fate has befallen one of his young reporters, Cecilia Valenzuela, who was sued by General Clemente Noel Moral, a former counter-insurgency commander, after he claimed he was libelled in a television programme last year. 'I interviewed a policeman who said that the general had been present when guerrilla suspects were thrown out of helicopters. I didn't refer to the general at all myself but he still went ahead and sued me,' Ms Valenzuela said yesterday.

A court agreed she had not libelled Gen Noel, but a higher tribunal reversed the decision and imposed a 12-month suspended sentence on her. The presenter of the programme, Cesar Hildebrandt, who subsequently travelled to Spain on a scholarship, has been declared a fugitive from justice.

Last week Ms Valenzuela's case took a more sinister turn. An envelope containing a chicken's head and a photograph of her with a black ribbon attached was found in the Caretas building. 'If the guerrillas are going to kill you they just shoot. This voodoo stuff looks like the work of the intelligence service,' she said.

At the end of last week Mr Zileri was unexpectedly granted permission to travel to a conference in Chile. 'That's typical,' one reporter said. 'This sudden relaxation may have something to do with pressure from abroad. Peru needs US support in its debt negotiations with creditor banks and the Paris Club next month, and knows it has to clean up its human rights act.'

Letter, page 17