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

ELECTIONS-PERU: Partisan Media Distort Information

Milagros Salazar

LIMA, Jun 2 2011 (IPS) - Attacks, fear and disinformation are widespread in news coverage of Peru’s election campaign, with the leading media outlets taking the side of rightwing Keiko Fujimori in her contest against Ollanta Humala for the presidency.

A study of the media by the Calandria Association of Social Communicators found that 42 percent of articles about Humala were negative, compared to 29 percent of the articles about Fujimori.

Seventy-one percent of stories about Fujimori were neutral, compared to only 31 percent of news items about Humala, a centre-left nationalist, according to the study.

“An important bloc of the Peruvian press has sided with one candidate (Fujimori) without taking thought for the country,” the head of Calandria, Rosa María Alfaro, told IPS.

The study analysed 2,059 political news items between Mar. 27 and Apr. 17 this year, during the campaign and the week following the Apr. 10 first round of elections. Coverage by the newspapers El Comercio, Perú 21, La República, Correo, La Primera and Expreso was examined.

These newspapers focused on Humala, a former military officer, but to attack him rather than discuss his candidacy objectively.

Opinion polls show a tight race for the presidency, which will be decided in the Jun. 5 runoff, as well as a high level of opposition to both the candidates.

In Humala’s case, his proposed economic policies are disliked by critics who say they could discourage private investment. They also frown on his supposed closeness to leftwing Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Fujimori, for her part, faces criticism for the systematic human rights violations and corruption perpetrated by the government of her father, Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), for which he is serving prison sentences.

“Information is being presented like electoral propaganda, which reveals a lack of ethics in the way the news is being handled,” said Alfaro, in whose view the media’s political position belongs in the editorial pages, not the news section.

Calandria says during the first stage of the campaign, the media chose to back one or two candidates, leaving aside plurality and equity in information, and is repeating this behaviour to an even greater extent in the second stage of the elections.

The El Comercio news group, the largest in the country, which publishes the newspaper of the same name and the tabloid Peru 21, has been accused of supporting Fujimori, based on its constant accusations against Humala and its criticisms of his government plan.

In the view of journalist Gustavo Gorriti, head of the IDL-Reporteros investigative reporting project, El Comercio’s position is largely due to board member Martha Meier, who was a parliamentary candidate for the Fujimori movement in 2000.

The news group’s stance led to the April and May resignations of three Peru 21 journalists. In addition, the producer and the news chief of Canal N, part of the Plural TV group which is part-owned by El Comercio, were fired for covering Humala’s activities to the same extent as Fujimori’s, they said.

The dismissals, condemned by opinion leaders, were particularly significant because Canal N was a symbol of freedom of expression during the Alberto Fujimori regime, and broadcast the famous 2000 video showing Vladimiro Montesinos bribing a member of parliament.

The video images circled the world and ultimately brought down the Fujimori regime by exposing the actions of Montesino, Fujimori’s intelligence adviser who is now also in prison for crimes against humanity and corruption.

There have also been complaints about pressure on journalists in the provinces. According to Calandria, many media outlets “are covering up the political and dictatorial past of the Fujimori government,” hurting the collective memory and ignoring the fact that the regime controlled the editorial line taken by the press through massive bribery schemes.

Emilio Camacho, one of the three journalists who resigned from Perú 21, told IPS he was not surprised by the partisan coverage of the large media, because over the past five years they have been accommodating to the Fujimoristas in Congress but ferociously critical of lawmakers belonging to Humala’s party.

“None of the media, not even the most critical, held the Fujimoristas to account. They let a lot of things go by without comment,” he added after his departure from Perú 21. “Unfortunately, there will always be some reporter willing to write the news to order.”

Criticism of the press has grown along with controversial headlines such as that on the front page of Perú 21 on May 25: “Lo vi matar” (I saw him kill).

The sensationalist headline refers to an article claiming Humala committed human rights violations in 1992 at the counterinsurgency base of Madre Mía, in the Huánuco region.

Perú 21 based their report on the testimony of a single person, former sergeant Segundo Gómez, the leader of a group that carried out a robbery at the Agrarian University of the Jungle.

“This campaign is accentuating bias in the news,” Luis Jaime Cisneros, a member of the board of the Press and Society Institute, told IPS. “In recent years, the Peruvian press has become first and foremost a political agent, not a communicator.”

Calandria’s study says that 65 percent of Perú 21’s coverage of the campaign during the first round was devoted to accusations and refutations. At the other end of the spectrum La Primera, which supports Humala, did much the same.

According to the study, La Primera and La República devoted half their full-page stories to describing the activities of Humala’s party in the first round. Cisneros said fear-mongering was rife and public opinion was being poisoned with disinformation. “I have not seen many arguments, but I have seen a lot of (distorted) headlines,” he told IPS.

The conflict has reached the point where, in the second week of May, the editor of La Primera, César Lévano, and the head of its board, Arturo Belaúnde, were sent funeral wreaths as death threats at the newspaper’s offices.

Days earlier, Jaime de Althaus, presenter of a programme on Canal N, was attacked by supporters of Humala because of his criticisms of the candidate.

According to Cisneros, this is one of the most polarised campaigns ever, and Gorriti said it was “one of the dirtiest,” with the media providing not coverage but “psychological warfare.”

Calandria said the current behaviour of the media weakens democracy and the credibility of journalists. It called for self-regulation by the press and proclaimed the right of readers and viewers to monitor and oversee it.

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