Human Rights Watch

Peru radio closure could undermine press freedom

The Peruvian government’s decision to revoke the broadcast license of a local radio station “could have a chilling effect on community broadcasting in Peru,” reported Human Rights Watch on Wednesday.

“The timing and circumstances of the revocation suggest that it may have been an act of censorship, or punishment, in response to coverage of anti-government protests on June 5, 2009,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.

Before dawn on June 5, 2009, violence erupted on a remote jungle highway in the Bagua province of Amazonas department, after army helicopters, soldiers strategically positioned atop hills, and police began to throw tear gas grenades directly into the crowd of 5,000 protesters. The tear gas caused panic and angered the protesters, who responded with violence. Police accused protesters of firing first, but the tribesmen denied having guns and said they only carried their traditional spears.

In the worst crisis since President Alan García took office in 2006, the violent confrontation left six natives, four Bagua residents and 11 police dead, as well as one officer missing and hundreds of people injured.

Then, days later, on June 8, 2009, the Ministry of Transport and Telecommunications revoked Radio La Voz de Bagua’s broadcast license.

But, although Peru’s Interior Minister Mercedes Cabanillas and other leading APRA party members said that the station had supported violence during its coverage of the civil unrest in Bagua, the official revocation order makes no reference to any alleged support of or incitement to violence, and justifies the action on the grounds that the station had failed to meet the legal requirements set forth in its initial broadcasting permit from March 2007.

“It’s one thing to express solidarity and other to call for violence,” said Ronald Gamarra, the Secretary General of Peru’s National Human Rights Coordinator, or CNNDH.

“If there is in fact credible evidence that a radio station has actively supported or incited violence, then the broadcasters should be subject to investigation and sanction, with all appropriate judicial guarantees,” said Vivanco. “But closing down a station this way certainly looks like retaliation for coverage the government didn’t like.”

“While the government office that reviews radio licensing issued a report in December 2008 stating that the La Voz de Bagua station did not meet the requirements established in the permit, no action was taken to close the station for seven months,” added Vivanco. “In fact, during this time, the government approved a license for the station’s antenna and invited it to apply for a certification for its transmitter, which the station owner did in March 2009. Nonetheless, three days after the incidents in Bagua and the minister’s statements, the government cancelled the station’s broadcasting license.”

The station’s owner presented an administrative appeal before the vice minister of communications on June 19, asking him to reverse his decision to revoke the station’s license.

“The government has legitimate authority to regulate the broadcasting spectrum in Peru,” said Vivanco. “But if it does so in a manner that appears to arbitrarily limit the work of a station that reports on violent incidents during anti-government demonstrations, it can undermine freedom of expression, rather than advancing it.”

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