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Peru: Radio Closure Could Undermine Press Freedom

Timing and Circumstances of License Revocation Suggest Censorship

UPDATE: On October 5, 2010, the Peruvian Ministry of Transport and Communications authorized the definitive reopening of Radio Bagua.

(Washington, DC) - The Peruvian government's decision this month to revoke the broadcast license of a local radio station could have a chilling effect on community broadcasting in Peru, Human Rights Watch said today. The timing and circumstances of the revocation suggest that it may have been an act of censorship, or punishment, in response to coverage of anti-government protests on June 5, 2009.

On June 8, the Ministry of Transport and Telecommunications revoked Radio La Voz de Bagua's broadcast license. Other news media reported that the minister of the interior and members of the president's APRA party said that the station had supported violence during its coverage of the civil unrest in Bagua, which resulted in the deaths of 24 police officers and at least nine civilians. The official revocation order makes no reference to any alleged support of or incitement to violence, but justifies the action on the grounds that the station had failed to meet the legal requirements set forth in its initial broadcasting permit from March 2007.

"If there is in fact credible evidence that a radio station has actively supported or incited violence, then the broadcasters should be subject to investigation and sanction, with all appropriate judicial guarantees," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "But closing down a station this way certainly looks like retaliation for coverage the government didn't like."

Radio Programas del Peru reported that Interior Minister Mercedes Cabanillas accused La Voz de Bagua of "inciting violence" during its coverage of the incidents and said that the government should take action against it. Other press accounts said that several APRA legislators claimed in subsequent days that the station "supported" the violence in Bagua.

While the government office that reviews radio licensing issued a report in December 2008 stating that the La Voz de Bagua station did not meet the requirements established in the permit, no action was taken to close the station for seven months. In fact, during this time, the government approved a license for the station's antenna and invited it to apply for a certification for its transmitter, which the station owner did in March 2009. Nonetheless, three days after the incidents in Bagua and the minister's statements, the government cancelled the station's broadcasting license.

The station's owner presented an administrative appeal before the vice minister of communications on June 19, asking him to reverse his decision to revoke the station's license.

"The government has legitimate authority to regulate the broadcasting spectrum in Peru," said Vivanco. "But if it does so in a manner that appears to arbitrarily limit the work of a station that reports on violent incidents during anti-government demonstrations, it can undermine freedom of expression, rather than advancing it."

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