Reporters Without Borders

Calm debate on environment needed after charges withdrawn against photographer

Calm debate on environment needed after charges withdrawn against photographer

Published on Friday 24 June 2011.
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Reporters Without Borders welcomes the withdrawal of charges against photographer Marcela Rodríguez, a contributor to the Mapuexpress website, when she appeared before a court in the southern city of Temuco on 22 June. The public prosecutor decided it was not in the public interest to prosecute her.

Rodríguez, 29, had been facing a possible 300-day jail sentence on a public disorder charge, plus a fine for refusing to admit her guilt, ever since she and 10 other people were arrested during a 13 May demonstration in Temuco against the “HydroAysen” hydro-electric project. She had been covering the protest.

Just two days before Rodríguez’s court appearance, an appeal court in the southen city of Puerto Montt ordered the suspension of the very controversial project, involving the construction of five 2,750-megawatt power stations.

“Do these two court decisions, coming just two days apart, mark a move towards a calmer debate on environmental issues within Chilean society?” Reporters Without Borders asked. “We hope that that the withdrawal of the charges against Rodríguez means that an issue of major public interest is no longer off limits.”

The press freedom organization added: “It was for the sake of this principle and the legitimate right to report news and information that Reporters Without Borders acted as Rodríguez’s guarantor and supported an appeal that was submitted to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on 21 June, the eve of the withdrawal of the charges.”


17.05.11 - Press freedom cases highlight environmental coverage taboo

Photographer Marcela Rodríguez’s arrest while covering a protest against a major hydroelectric project on 13 May and a government agency’s refusal to fund distribution of filmmaker Elena Varela’s documentary about the Mapuche people’s land dispute with the authorities have revived concern about a tendency to suppress coverage of environmental issues in Chile.

A contributor to the Mapuexpress website, Rodríguez, 29, was arrested when police used force to disperse demonstrators within five minutes of their starting to stage a protest in the southern city of Temuco against plans to build five hydro-electric dams in Patagonia. The so-called Hydroaysén project’s imminent approval has sparked a massive wave of protests in Chile.

The staff of Mapuexpress told Reporters Without Borders that Rodríguez was mistreated by the police. According to Radio Bío Bío, she and 10 other people are due to appear in court on 22 June on charges of public disorder. Prosecutors want each of them sentenced to 300 days in prison, plus a fine if they refuse to admit their responsibility.

“We hope that, at the trial, the police will explain their behaviour during Marcela Rodríguez’s arrest and their violation of the constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms of assembly and information,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Thirty thousand people demonstrated in Santiago. Why was a much smaller demonstration – and its coverage – so quickly suppressed in Temuco?

“The dispute over the Hydraysén project compounds the already serious land conflict between the authorities and the Mapuche indigenous communities in the south. Rodríguez’s fate takes on an additional importance as her case has coincided with a disturbing new development in the case of documentary filmmaker Elena Varela.”

Varela was arrested on a criminal association charge in 2008 while shooting her documentary “Newen Mapuche” about the Mapuche people in the southern region of Araucania and their disputes with the government. It was not until 22 April 2010 that she was finally acquitted.

The many questionable aspects of the case against Varela suggested that it was an attempt to censor her film. Two foreign documentary film crews that came to cover the issue of the Mapuche in Araucania were deported from Chile at around the same time.

Varela’s film is ready for distribution and has already begun being screened in festivals in Chile and other countries. But CORFO (Corporación de Fomento de la Producción), a state agency that promotes production, told Varela in a 13 April letter that it was refusing her request for assistance with the film’s national and international distribution on the grounds that it “would harm the country’s image.”

“This is clearly a case of political censorship,” the Association of Chilean Documentary Makers (ADOC) said in a 12 May letter to CORFO executive vice-president Hernán Cheyre and culture minister Luciano Cruz-Coke. Varela had previously filed an appeal with the culture ministry, which did not keep its promise to reply by 11 May.

“Our assessment of this case is similar to that of ADOC’s filmmakers.” Reporters Without Borders said. “The reason given by CORFO for refusing to help distribute ‘Newen Mapuche’ even seems to confirm that Varela was arrested in 2008 for making a film about a subject the government would rather forget. It is also absurd, inasmuch as screenings have already begun.

“The refusal to support this film confirms the continuing existence of a taboo in Chile that it is time to end. Varela’s documentary raises an issue of real public interest both nationally and internationally. For the sake of a public debate and for the sake of freedom of expression and information, ‘Newen Mapuche’ should receive normal distribution.”

Also read the Reporters Without Borders report “Deforestation and pollution, high-risk subjects”.

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