Top journalist watches over Latin America Gustavo Gorriti jailed, exiled for his reporting on government corruption

November 29, 1998|By Rick Rockwell

WHEN GUSTAVO Gorriti arrived in Washington last week, his visit was overdue. An investigative reporter and newspaper editor, Gorriti had canceled an appearance last month in the nation's capital for a seminar on independent journalism sponsored by the World Bank, because of fears he would not be able to return to his home in Panama.

This was a minor inconvenience compared to what Gorriti has endured in the past. Indeed, his current visit is possible only as small recompense for the price extracted from him for his forceful reporting in the 1990s. He was one of five journalists honored Tuesday in New York with an International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Regarded widely as the top investigative journalist in Latin America, Gorriti has angered two governments with his work. A Peruvian, he was forced into virtual exile after his writing infuriated Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori. Panama's government also moved to expel him last year because of his reporting.

His main sin? He has dared to reveal the corruption of Panama's political leadership. As Gorriti is learning, Panamanians are hosts who don't appreciate criticism from guests. As the associate editor of Panama's most successful newspaper, La Prensa, Gorriti knows it would be easy to stop prying into controversial stories. He could afford to coast a bit. But Gorriti, who has a passion for weightlifting and is built like a wrestler, knows he was made for grappling.

Both the journalist and his paper have a reputation for producing hard-hitting reports. Many of the details revealed to American audiences this month by CBS' "60 Minutes," about lethal pollution and ordnance that will be left behind by the U.S. military in the Panama Canal Zone, first appeared in La Prensa. Gorriti closely supervises the paper's investigative efforts.

"In Latin America, because of the fragility of democracy, there's a burden for the independent press to have a substantial role in the balance-of-power equation," Gorriti says.

In his view, no other institutions, besides the media, can provide a counterweight to the leaders of Latin American nations.

Analysts like to call such nations "emerging democracies." However, without powerful judiciaries or a history of strong legislative action, many countries in the region are pseudo-democracies. Gorriti's experience in his homeland is a case in point.

In 1990, during Fujimori's first election campaign in Peru, Gorriti's investigative stories connected Fujimori to Vladamiro Montesinos, a CIA informant and former officer in the Peruvian Army.

Two years later, when Fujimori dissolved Peru's Congress and seized power, Montesinos headed the National Intelligence Services (known by the Spanish acronym SIN).

The night Fujimori moved to increase his control, a team of Peruvian army commandos under orders from SIN kidnapped Gorriti and held him for two days.

The next year, Gorriti took a position at Washington's Carnegie Endowment on International Peace. In 1996, he moved to Panama.

Gorriti plays down the danger he would face if he returned to Peru. He says he's in Panama because there is "no viable work" for him in Peru. He admits that if he went back, it would mean an inevitable confrontation with Fujimori.

"One thing I learned: Even though I wanted to go back, I should not hinge my life on that objective," Gorriti says. "I work as intently as if I were to never go back."

But even his status in Panama is shaky. In 1996, Gorriti's reporting embarrassed Panamanian President Ernesto Perez Balladares by revealing that his election campaign had accepted a major contribution from a drug trafficker with ties to the Cali, Colombia, cartel. Perez Balladares was once aligned with the dictators who ruled Panama, including Gen. Manuel Noriega, who is serving time in Florida on drug trafficking charges.

Gorriti also ran afoul of Perez Balladares' cousin, Nicolas Gonzalez Revilla, who was consolidating his media holdings in Panama. Gonzalez Revilla's company controls Panama's two most powerful television networks and the country's most popular radio news outlet. Gorriti wrote critically about Gonzalez Revilla's attempts to gain a monopoly in the electronic media market, in which his television stations command three-fourths of the nation's viewers.

"Vertical integration of the media is much more dangerous [in Panama] than in the States," Gorriti says. "The effect of the acquisition of independent media by one source runs at counter purposes with the quality of journalism. How can journalists report when they are controlled by those who represent the most powerful political sectors?"

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