Disclosures of Peruvian media corruption stun even most jaded observers
By Suzanne Bilello
LIMA, Peru The deal was sealed in November 1999, and it was exceptional in what it required of América Television, Peru's Channel 4.
The nine clauses of the contract between the television station's vice president, José Francisco Crousillat, and the country's then intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, obliged América Television to:
- Promote President Alberto Fujimori's constitutionally suspect bid for a third term.
- Deny coverage to opposition candidates.
- Refuse advertising from the opposition.
- Turn editorial control over to Montesinos.
In return, América would receive $1.5 million a month for six months. In addition, Montesinos would channel $27.8 million in advertising to the financially troubled station.
About the same time a similar deal reportedly was reached between Montesinos and Samuel and Mendel Winter. Two years before, the Winter brothers had taken control of Channel 2 (Frecuencia Latina) after the government-orchestrated ouster of the majority shareholder, Baruch Ivcher.
Under the deal with the Winters, Montesinos would make monthly payments of $500,000. Moreover, according to documents released by investigators, Montesinos later would funnel $3.5 million to the Winters in payments disguised as the purchase price for the company's stock.
The contracts with both stations were to run through April 9, 2000 the day after the presidential election.
That elements of Peru's news media indulged in corrupt practices is nothing new. Many Peruvians and international observers had suspected that the fierce political attacks on television and in the tabloids had to have been paid for.
And for months now, Peruvians have been enthralled by revelations of bribery and extortion schemes that Montesinos pursued and videotaped in a corrupt and ill-fated effort to keep Fujimori in power. Fujimori left office in disgrace last November. Montesinos' whereabouts are unknown.
Montesinos'videotapes, known as the "Vladivideos," represent a stunning record of illegality in which Peruvian media figures, as well as politicians and business leaders, engaged.
It is the sweep and the nuanced detail of the suspected corruption of the Peruvian media that has stunned even the most jaded of observers.
"We always knew that something like this was going on, but I have to say we never imagined it would be this extensive," said Santiago Pedraglio, a political analyst. He added:
"The networks basically signed a blank check giving Montesinos control. He controlled the news. He controlled what went on the air and what did not go on the air."
Analysts say that Peru's television networks were particularly vulnerable to Montesinos' entreaties because many of them were deeply in debt. An economic recession during the late 1990s had significantly cut private-sector advertising.
Then, too, was the regime's hostility to dissent and open criticism, which resulted in self-censorship and worse, international media-advocacy groups say.
Fujimori, who took office in 1990, drew international condemnation when he shut down Congress and the courts in 1992. And he always had a contentious relationship with the country's non-official press.
"Since 1992, many media, especially television and print journalists, have been pressured into self-censorship or exile by a broad government campaign of intimidation, abductions, death threats, libel suits, withholding advertising, police harassment, arbitrary detention, physical mistreatment," New York-based Freedom House said in a report in 1999.
If anything, the relationship between the Fujimori regime and the news media deteriorated during the runup to last year's presidential election. On the eve of the vote, the U.S. ambassador, John R. Hamilton, told a Freedom Forum delegation that "the single most important problem with the playing field is the opposition's lack of access to the broadcast media, TV in particular."
Despite the harassment and threats, Peru's independent media notably national dailies El Comercio and La República and the weekly magazine Caretas, as well as Canal N, a cable channel owned by the El Comercio group continued to offer critical reporting. They also were sources of information on official corruption.
The independent press played an important play in the events that would lead to the unraveling and collapse of Fujimori's regime six months ago.
"Investigative stories in the Peruvian press were an invaluable source of information when I began my investigation of Vladimiro Montesinos and President Fujimori last November," said José Ugaz, Peru's special prosecutor.
The Winter brothers were arrested Feb. 23. Arrest warrants were issued three days later for Crousillat and his father, José Enrique Crousillat. Both are at large.
Besides the Winters and the Crousillats, other television, radio and print media executives face corruption charges, Peruvian officials say.
The publisher of the pro-Fujimori daily Expreso, Eduardo Calmell del Solar, is under house arrest. He is under investigation on charges of illegally enriching himself.
In addition, an arrest warrant has been issued for Genero Delgado Parker, majority shareholder of Channel 13 (Global Television) and Radio 1160. He also is at large. A videotape of a meeting April 7, 1999, shows Delgado Parker agreeing to fire a journalist, César Hildebrandt, reportedly in exchange for favorable resolution of legal problems in some of his businesses.
In addition, owners of other national television networks, including Panamericana Television and Andina de Radiodifusión Valdivideo, as well as other media, are under investigation. So are owners of several sensationalist tabloids known as "prensa chicha."
At that same time there has been a striking turnaround by previously pro-government news media. With a few exceptions, television stations are covering the campaigns of the eight candidates for president. Elections are set for next April 8.
"There has been a substantive change in the news media," Pedraglio said. "At least for now there is no going back."
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