On 11 January 2010, a heavily armed contingent of police officers arrested journalist Alejandro Carrascal Carrasco outside his home in Bagua, Peru.
As many as 25 officers dragged the well-known editor of the Peruvian weekly Nor Oriente first to the police station to take his statement, then to court, and subsequently to a detention centre where they held him overnight to await his sentence on defamation charges.
According to local and international observers, the case against Carrascal has little to do with defamation and much more with efforts on the part of the Peruvian government to silence critical voices
In court the following day, Carrascal fainted, as a result of severe high blood pressure, while Justice Francisco Miranda Caramutti pronounced the sentence. Not fully cognizant of its severity, Carrascal was taken to hospital and later transferred to prison to begin serving the one-year term.
The case against Carrascal is ostensibly based on a series of articles he wrote in 2005 alleging corruption by Víctor Feria, a former director of a Bagua-based public educational institute, stated the journalist’s lawyer, Juan José Quispe, in a telephone interview with New Internationalist. Quispe said the ruling took everyone by surprise, including the person who had lodged the defamation suit. ‘[Feria] himself admitted to reporters that he was stunned by the judge’s decision since he had already abandoned the case,’ added Quispe. ‘It turns out that the ministry of justice had reactivated it all of a sudden.’
Why would the ministry of justice revisit a long-forgotten case?
According to local and international observers, the case against Carrascal has little to do with defamation and much more with efforts on the part of the Peruvian government to silence critical voices.
‘One needs to think about the context and the timing of events surrounding this case,’ said Liisa North, emeritus professor of political science at York University. ‘Then, the key question one has to ask is: what is the intent of his incarceration?’
Indeed, Carrascal had been reporting on controversial government investigations related to the indigenous protests that left dozens of people dead in the Amazon town of Bagua in June 2009.
Human rights groups have referred to this incident as the Amazon’s Tiananmen, highlighting that García has actually called the indigenous protesters ‘second-class citizens’
The indigenous protests had erupted in reaction to President Alan García’s plan to open large parts of the Amazon to transnational corporations, allowing them to pursue oil, gas and mining exploration projects on communal jungle lands and water reserves. A study by Duke University researchers found that García has awarded exploration contracts that cover as much as 72 per cent of the Peruvian Amazon. The President issued special decrees to benefit foreign investors in accord with free trade agreements with Canada and the US.
Carrascal condemned García’s efforts to lease and sell indigenous lands without the free, prior and informed consent of residents.
The Amazon’s Tiananmen
The government had already shut down the region’s Radio La Voz de Bagua, accusing it of ‘inciting violence’ during the protests. Carrascal was critical of that measure too, since the station had simply broadcast live warnings about actions that security forces might take. La Voz de Bagua has since received a prize for its journalism at the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards.
President García has been harshly criticized, at home and abroad, for the way he handled the conflict and for the way he managed the investigations that followed. According to the reputable US periodical NACLA, human rights groups have referred to this incident as the Amazon’s Tiananmen, highlighting that García has actually called the indigenous protesters ‘second-class citizens.’
Witnesses and relatives of missing protesters have accused the government of covering up details of the conflict. They contend that the authorities seek to place responsibility onto the indigenous population while exonerating government security forces from any wrongdoing. In his articles, Carrascal had openly condemned the government’s version of events.
Coincidentally or not, Carrascal’s son, Iván, is the lawyer for Asterio Pujupat, a member of the indigenous community who has been accused of being involved in the murder of a police officer during these same protests. The officer’s body is yet to be found.
Local journalism associations have denounced the court ruling against Carrascal as a ‘vendetta’ and as an ‘assault on freedom of speech’
One day prior to Carrascal’s arrest, on 10 January 2010, Nor Oriente released a detailed two-page news report suggesting that the photograph the authorities used as evidence in the murder charge against Pujupat had been doctored.
If that were not enough, Miranda Caramutti, the judge who delivered Carrascal’s sentence, is also presiding the case against Pujupat.
Waiting for justice
Local journalism associations have denounced the court ruling against Carrascal as a ‘vendetta’ and as an ‘assault on freedom of speech’. The Peruvian Association of Journalists (ANP) has protested against the arrest, deeming it ‘arbitrary’. In spite of this, Carrascal’s incarceration has received scant coverage in the mainstream Peruvian media. The case is currently under appeal, even though a hearing date has yet to be set. Reached by telephone, judge Miranda maintained, ‘there are no irregularities in this case.’ Declining to comment further, he added, ‘I do not make any statements to the media over the telephone.’
Meanwhile, the editor of Nor Oriente waits patiently in jail. ‘He only wants justice,’ his lawyer said, speaking from Bagua on the first anniversary of the bloody clashes. ‘He feels he is being punished for defending the indigenous protesters who perished in the confrontation, as well as for taking a stand against the corruption that bedevils the Peruvian judiciary.’