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World Press Freedom Review
Approximately four million people live on Puerto Rico, a self-governing island territory of the United States that has commonwealth status. It has one of the most dynamic economies in the Caribbean region with a diverse industrial sector that has far surpassed the traditional mainstay of agriculture as the primary locus of economic activity and income. Encouraged by duty-free access to the U.S. and tax incentives, U.S. firms have invested heavily in Puerto Rico since the 1950s. There are four national daily newspapers (three in Spanish and one in English), three national weeklies, and numerous local publications. There are scores of radio and television stations.
On 10 February, during a FBI raid on an apartment building in the capital, San Juan, a group of around 20 journalists, who were covering the event, was showered with pepper gas and allegedly assaulted by FBI agents. The FBI raid on five homes and businesses was carried out to thwart an alleged "domestic terrorist attack" planned by a pro-independence group. An FBI spokesperson said the FBI agents had used "non-lethal force" to keep the media and protestors from crossing into a law enforcement perimeter. Reporters and media organisations condemned the actions of the FBI as abusive and a media freedom violation. Oscar J. Serrano, president of the Puerto Rico Journalists Association (ASSPRO) described the incident as "a wilful, unprecedented, criminal and vicious attack on people that were executing professionally the freedom of the press, a right that is guaranteed in the First Amendment of your (U.S.) Constitution and on the Bill of Rights of our Constitution". The director of the U.S. National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Iván Román, said, "We are concerned that these violent tactics used against journalists in Puerto Rico serve as another example of increased hostilities by the federal government against the press." In September, in a follow-up to the February incidents, ASSPRO, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Overseas Press Club, and six journalists announced that they had filed a civil lawsuit against the FBI in the U.S. District Court in San Juan. This unprecedented lawsuit seeks to compensate the journalists for the abuse they suffered and to order the FBI to establish a procedure to ensure that journalists are able to fulfil their duties. Media organisations in the United States and Puerto Rico said they would join the suit.
On 1 September, Dennise Pérez from the daily newspaper El Vocero, Associated Press reporter Yaisha Vargas, Celia Hernández from WKVM Radio, and photographer Luis López, also from El Vocero, were assaulted by a group of supporters of the opposition New Progressive Party (Partido Nuevo Progresista - PNP) during a demonstration in front of the Justice Palace in San Juan. Security guards had tried to back the journalists away as former First Lady, Irma Margarita Nevares, left the building after giving testimony in the trial of her husband, ex-Governor Pedro Rosselló (1993-2001), who stood accused of illegally applying for and cashing a pension. The journalists were then threatened and shoved around. In a statement, the Federación Latinoamericana de Periodistas (Latin American Journalists Federation) urged an investigation, saying that Justice Department officials "instead of providing the journalists with protection, colluded with the aggressors." The statement continued, "The situation is part of a climate of intolerance cultivated in recent years by sectors that act as a real political mafia with the intention of intimidating journalists that inform on the apparently criminal activities of people in the shadow of public and political party jobs". The incident came just days after Thomas Rivera Schatz, the secretary of the PNP, insulted journalists Irene Gazón, Oscar Serrano and Leonardo Aldridge, of the daily newspaper Primera Hora, during a press conference. He accused them of being connected to the government.
There were two positive developments in June. On 22 June, the Senate approved Bill 1019 guaranteeing protection of journalists’ sources. The law states that journalists may not be required to reveal their confidential sources nor penalised for refusing to do so. On 29 June, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Federico Hernández Denton, put into effect a procedure for reporters covering the lower courts, appeals courts, and the Supreme Court. The procedure’s stated objective was to guarantee the media fair access to judicial proceedings and to public information about them.
On the negative side, in the middle of September, the government secretary, Jorge Silva Puras, announced new guidelines for providing information to the media, including a restriction on heads of agencies from making public comments without authorisation from the Central Communications Office of the government department. Silva Puras said that the guidelines were intended to respond to the government’s information needs. Local media associations rejected the move as an attempt to control or limit the flow of information.
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