Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Press Freedom

CHILE-PERU: Censorship or Prudent Relations?

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Mar 14 2007 (IPS) - Fears of censorship were triggered by a decision by Chile’s public television station to postpone the broadcast of a documentary on the 1879-1883 war between Chile, Peru and Bolivia in response to a request by Chilean Foreign Minister Alejandro Foxley, who had been contacted by the Peruvian government.

The postponement represents “an extremely serious case of censorship of artistic expression, of a work of research that is clearly professional, since it was approved by the television station at all levels,” Felipe Portales, head of the Freedom of Expression Programme at the public University of Chile’s Institute of Communications and Image, told IPS.

Contrary to “the policy of the ostrich hiding its head in the sand in the face of problems, the documentary could have been useful for confronting and dealing with the pending conflicts” that continue to affect relations between Chile and Peru, said Portales, a sociologist by training who specialises in international relations and human rights.

In the 1879-1883 War of the Pacific, Chile gained mineral-rich territory, while Bolivia lost its entire Pacific coastline, becoming a landlocked country, and Peru lost the provinces of Tarapaca and Arica.

Minister Foxley admitted Monday that he had spoken with the chairman of the board of the public Televisión Nacional de Chile (TVN) station, Francisco Vidal, about the possibility of rescheduling the airing of the documentary “Epopeya”, as requested by the Peruvian government.

The documentary was the result of two years of work by the Nuevo Espacio production company, with funds from the governmental National Television Council and cooperation by the armed forces of Chile, Peru and Bolivia.

The first of three episodes was to be aired Wednesday at 10:00 PM, during prime time.

“Our assessment was that we are at a turning point in establishing relations with Peru that could overcome the traumas of the past, and it seemed to me necessary for TVN to have all of the facts needed to make a decision,” said Foxley.

The minister said he had told Vidal that “expressing an opinion – and I was absolutely explicit about this – did not constitute lobbying, let alone censorship; indeed, not even pressure.” He also said he assumed complete responsibility for his phone call to the television station.

Vidal, who served as spokesman for the government of Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006), also denied that the executive branch had sought to censor the TVN board of directors, made up of seven members from across the political spectrum.

Journalist Rafael Cavada, during whose programme the documentary was to be aired, said “This was not an incident of total censorship, because the TVN board of directors, for which I have the greatest respect, has decided unanimously to broadcast the documentary” later this year.

But he added that he was “disheartened” by the stance taken by the station’s authorities, who he said gave in to “pressure” from the Foreign Ministry to avoid hurting the Chilean government, which recently had a row with Peru because it “bungled the law on Arica.”

In late January, the Peruvian government of Alan García protested that a bill that will create the new Chilean region of Arica and Parinacota – which is still in parliament – contained a mistake with respect to the demarcation of the border between the two countries.

In the resulting conflict, Chile’s Constitutional Court ruled in favour of Peru.

This led Lima to demand that the countries’ maritime borders be modified, to which Chile is opposed. Santiago fears that García could take that demand to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

In Lima, García and Foreign Minister José Antonio García Belaúnde applauded the decision to suspend the broadcast of “Epopeya”. The Peruvian president described Chile as a “fundamental partner” and said he would continue the dialogue with Santiago “to consolidate and deepen what is already going well.”

The War of the Pacific remains a deeply emotional issue in Bolivia and Peru, which lost large swathes of territory to Chile. Diplomatic relations between Bolivia and Chile were formally severed in 1978 and have never been fully re-established. Ties with Peru have also been strained over the years.

“Epopeya” consists of three 52-minute episodes, in which the screenwriters show how the conflict continues to divide the three neighbouring nations. To do that, the documentary-makers talked to Peruvian, Chilean and Bolivian citizens, visited schools to find out how children are taught about the long-ago war, and interviewed historians and politicians.

None of the politicians or diplomats involved in the decision to postpone the documentary are familiar with its content.

But that did not keep the Peruvian ambassador in Chile, Hugo Otero, from being the first to warn Vidal of the repercussions that he believed the broadcast could have. Vidal then phoned Chile’s ambassador in Lima, Cristián Barros, to hear his opinion, which coincided with Otero’s.

Nevertheless, the TVN board of directors decided to go ahead with the scheduled airing of the documentary on Wednesday.

The decision was relayed to Otero, which prompted Peruvian Foreign Minister García Belaúnde to turn to the Chilean Foreign Ministry.

On Saturday, Foxley phoned Vidal to insist that the programme be rescheduled, invoking “reasons of state.”

The station’s board of directors held an extraordinary meeting Saturday and Sunday, and voted five to two to defer the broadcast. However, all seven members agreed to air it, without cutting any parts, later this year.

Manuela Gumucio, director of the non-governmental Fucatel Media Observatory, did not see the incident as an act of censorship “because it is a public station and the minister cited reasons of state. However, it does bring to light another, deeper, problem facing television in our country: the lack of openness to productions from other Latin American countries.”

“Films from Argentina, Peru or Bolivia, whether fictional or documentaries, on questions of common interest are not broadcast in Chile,” which feeds “chauvinism” and prejudice, because Chileans are thus unfamiliar with public opinion in those countries, or with their cultural wealth, she told IPS.

“This documentary would not have been seen as posing a risk if a policy of openness existed,” said Gumucio.

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