NATIONAL POLITICS

How Press Freedom in Chile is Deteriorating

How Press Freedom in Chile is Deteriorating

SANTIAGO – A televised sketch featuring an army general sparked controversy. In an increasingly common reaction, all branches of the armed forces, plus the Defense Ministry, issued separate statements slamming the parody. The incident shows that Chile keeps lurching toward authoritarianism.

A skit on broadcaster La Red’s program Politically Incorrect featured an army general who “doesn’t do much [for the country.]”

In response, the branches of the armed forces and the Defense Minister issued harsh statements referring to the forces’ “honor” the parody hurt.

The incident exposes a deeper institutional problem with the press as the armed forces have come under scrutiny for large-scale theft of public resources, fraud and human rights violations.

Addressing La Red’s director Víctor Gutiérrez, army general Sergio Gutiérrez said the armed forces were “for over a year collaborating with all Chileans to face the sanitary emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic … The exercise of freedom of speech and information is essential for society’s progress when it is done with truth and responsibility, which has not happened in this case.” The air force and navy published similar declarations.

The forces have come under scrutiny again as it emerged that military intelligence had spied on journalist Mauricio Weibel – who revealed the fraud scandal in the military – as well as reporters Juan Cristóbal Peña, Pascale Bonnefoy, Santiago Pavlovic, and Danae Fuster. Former officers Carlos Farías and Rafael Harvey, who alleged  irregularities in the forces, also came under surveillance.

Pressure on the Press

La Red has been subject to recent government interference. A show on the channel revealed the close relationship between President Sebastián Piñera and casino chain Enjoy, which was the sole benefactor of a presidential decree.

Chief-of-staff Magdalena Díaz then “complained” about the report to La Red’s owners in Miami. She also reportedly told the channel’s executives in the US that “your channel has gone to the left … the damage it causes to democracy with this editorial line is complicated, for it causes division in the country.”

Víctor Gutiérrez later said the television association’s president then wanted to discuss proposals from the Culture Ministry, but the TV station head declined to participate in this “bad joke” which was a hollow attempt “to clean the government’s image.” Gutiérrez said the government acted “undemocratic” and “dictatorial.”

The broadcaster will also file a lawsuit against Piñera with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, because of his “pressures.”

By Reason…

Around 800 soldiers were charged with fraud in December 2020, after a two-year investigation revealed that military officers – of which 500 are retired – illegally received benefits amounting to CLP$3 billion (US$4.1 million). The findings add to revelations of massive corruption in the forces. In 2018, the government announced a military reform after a scandal involving improper use of funds for air fares emerged. But no reform bill has been passed so far.

Several press unions defended freedom of speech, highlighting that the military’s declarations are out of step with the institution’s constitutionally defined role as a non-deliberating body. TV audiences also sympathized with the comedians.

…or by Force

Journalist Mauricio Weibel, who uncovered the Milicogate embezzlement scandal has been surveilled by intelligence directorate DINE. Other journalists reporting on human rights violations were also tracked.

Investigative collective Ciper reported recently that the intelligence unit was monitoring judge Romy Rutherford – who is under police protection. Rutherford is leading the corruption investigations. A DINE worker was caught by Carabineros outside Rutherford’s office in 2019.

Former army officer Rafael Harvey was also on the watch list. Harvey has dragged military corruption into the public since 2015. He offered Piñera and former Defense Minister Alberto Espina the evidence he gathered, but neither was interested. Six years ago, Harvey accused corruption for the first time in the Tacna squadron, where officers were unlawfully charging new low-income conscripts for uniforms. Harvey was put on remand on sedition charges by a court-martial.

About the Politically Incorrect parody, Harvey said on Twitter that the depiction “represents the factual truth that Chile has witnessed; it’s not fiction.”

Consequences for Press Freedom in Chile

The social uprising of 2019 and its aftermath presented independent media with an opportunity to offer audiences a different reality to that shown by traditional outlets, which were heavily criticized for their reporting in line with government interests and sometimes plainly lied.

Government interference and armed forces muscle-flexing – often supported by high-level politicians – have been problems under previous governments too. Under the second Piñera administration, however, the executive has grown more brazen and offensive.

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