BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) – Chile’s government is backing down on a plan that would have empowered police to force news media to surrender images without a court order, effectively turning photographers and cameramen into potential tools of the state.
After a media outcry, Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter personally called the foreign correspondents association to say he was eliminating the idea from his plan for giving police tough new ways to crack down on unauthorized social protests.
“It was completely unexpected,” association president Mauricio Weibel said Thursday. “He said he didn’t want any conflicts with the international press and so was personally withdrawing the proposal.”
It was a rare media victory in a region where media advocates say press freedoms are increasingly under attack.
In Ecuador this week, opposition lawmakers failed to block a law barring the news media from broadcasting or publishing any material that could influence opinions about candidates or proposals during election campaigns. In Argentina, the commerce minister was put in charge of managing the nation’s newsprint supply, a tool that opposition media fear could be used to silence criticism.
Weibel and other media leaders had warned lawmakers and aides to Chilean President Sebastian Pinera that seizing journalists’ material would damage Chile’s image internationally. He noted the international media freedom group Reporters Without Borders next week will publish its annual review of threats against the media, including a freedom index showing a sharp drop in Chile’s reputation.
Weibel said free speech advocates should keep lobbying against the rest of the proposed “Hinzpeter Law,” which would punish by up to three years in prison anyone convicted of violently occupying schools, hospitals, highways or public spaces or of promoting acts of “disorder” such as “paralyzing a public service” or impeding commuters from reaching their jobs.
“I want to be very clear: Our government respects the mobilizations and marches, but it will always ensure that public order is respected,” Hinzpeter said last week.
He was even more forceful when he introduced the proposed law last month, saying the government needs more tools to combat violence that erupts during social protests.
“Without public order, there is no possibility of civilized society. Without public order, it’s terror that takes control of our streets,” he said.
Congress will revisit the measure Friday, and some 400 youths protested outside Santiago’s main courthouse Thursday, waving anti-Hinzpeter signs and pictures.
The stiffer potential prison sentences would enable Chilean police to sweep suspects off the streets and keep them in jail while their cases are investigated, rather than fine and release them.
The now-removed clause on the media said that when “crimes are committed against the public order,” journalists are commonly present as well, creating evidence that can lead to convictions. Hinzpeter had suggested that journalists would voluntarily hand over material. In practice, the media groups argued, journalists would be unable to refuse armed police.
The correspondents association argued that journalists already struggle to assert their neutrality during confrontations between activists and police. If their photographic and video images could become evidence without even a judge’s order, unarmed cameramen would likely be targeted by both sides. The last thing Chile’s government needs is a dead journalist, they argued.
Latin America already accounted for half of the approximately 40 journalists killed worldwide last year, with most of the murders in Mexico and Honduras, Weibel said.
Seizing images from news media without court orders is virtually unprecedented in Latin America. In Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela, for example, there are no laws enabling police to unilaterally seize material. Even with a judicial order, Argentina’s media generally challenge such seizures on constitutional grounds.
In Chile, the center-left opposition has a slim majority in the lower house, making political compromises necessary to pass new laws. Not so in Argentina or Ecuador, where left-of-center presidents enjoy complete majorities.
The opposition in Ecuador couldn’t summon enough votes this week to block President Rafael Correa’s “Code of Democracy,” from taking effect Feb. 4.
The code empowers a national electoral council to decide what news can be published during campaigns. Governing party lawmakers denied it amounts to censorship, but the president of Ecuador’s journalists’ union, Vicente Ordonez, told the Ecuavisa channel that the political news ban “is a violation of the human right to freedom of opinion and freedom of expression.”
Associated Press writers Eva Vergara and Roberto Candia in Santiago, Chile; Debora Rey in Buenos Aires; Gonzalo Solano in Quito, Ecuador; Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas, Venezuela; and Marco Sibaja in Brasilia, Brazil, contributed to this report.
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