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Huila electoral candidates veto two newspapers; journalist harassed, forced to delete photographs

(FLIP/IFEX) - Members of the Liberal Party who are running in an election in Huila state have vetoed the "La Nación" and "Diario del Huila" newspapers. In addition, a "La Nación" journalist was harassed and forced to delete photographs she took during a meeting in which one of the candidates participated.

During a 17 September 2007 press conference, state candidate Carlos Mauricio Iliarte and Neiva mayoral candidate Pedro Hernán Suárez said that they would no longer provide statements to the two newspapers, nor would they purchase advertising space from them.

The candidates, who were accompanied by other Liberal Party leaders, accused the two papers of publishing information that is incomplete and biased in favour of the Conservative party (Partido Conservator).

"La Nación" editor-in-chief Ricardo Aleiza told FLIP that the veto followed the publication of a poll carried out by the National Consulting Center (Centro Nacional de Consultoría) which suggested that the Liberal candidates were not ahead in their ridings. "The media should not be banned for publishing the results of a survey that one disagrees with," said Aleiza, adding that the newspaper would continue to report on the activities of all the parties taking part in the election.

Suárez told FLIP, however, that the party's action was not sparked by the report on the survey, but rather was a reaction to a perceived bias in the newspapers' reporting in general. The mayoral candidate added that, while he would no longer send press releases to "La Nación and "Diario de Huila", he would not refuse to provide the papers with information when asked to do so.

In a separate incident, on 21 September, journalist Viviana Vargas, of "Diario de Huila", attended a meeting in which Suárez took part. At the end of the meeting, Vargas was taking some photographs when a number of Liberal supporters surrounded her and demanded that she delete the images from her camera. According to the journalist, she initially refused to do so but finally acquiesced after the Liberal supporters held her for 40 minutes and would not let her leave. Vargas told FLIP that one of Suárez's bodyguards took her camera to ensure that all the images had been deleted.

According to the "La Nación" editor, employees of the Carmen Emilia Ospina state social agency had attended the meeting. Since government employees should not be seen attending a political meeting, this is presumably the reason why it was important to participants that no photographic evidence of the event exists.

Suárez told FLIP, however, that the event was a private gathering at someone's home and not a public political meeting that was closed to government employees.

Suárez explained that Vargas had arrived at the meeting without an invitation and had not identified herself as a journalist. The participants only realised what she was doing when she began to take photographs and since it was a private event they had the right to ask her to leave. The mayoral candidate suggested that the journalist was not telling the truth and denied that his bodyguard had taken her camera to look at the photos or that Liberal party supporters had held her against her will.

FLIP condemns the incidents and the obstructions experienced by the press and reiterates that the press plays an important role during electoral campaigns by enabling the voting public to make an informed decision.

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