A Country Captured by Fear
By Benjamín Fernández Bogado
More than three million Paraguayans wake up each morning to watch the latest television news. During the night, each of three television stations has trained its cameras on Asunción’s main Trauma Center to report on those seeking treatment there. Television stations are violating constitutional mandates and privacy rights, but this does not appear to be a concern.
Then again at lunchtime, more than two million Paraguayans people watch violence-laden news reports. The emphasis does not change with the evening news: more than 80% of the daily news focuses on violence. More than 4 million Paraguayans are passively exposed to this crude violence without any possibility of rejecting this news fare, a daily soap opera of violence and bloody crimes.
Paraguayan society is captured by fear. There is a sense of living in a democracy that is not able to control violence, a fact that makes some citizens yearn for dictators and dictatorships. This California-sized country lived under a dictatorship for 35 years and you can still find some bumper stickers distributed by Alfredo Stroessner´s followers that read “From 1954 to 1989, I was happy but I didn’t realize it.” In the upcoming April national elections, one of Stroessner´s grandsons is running for a Senate seat, campaigning principally on the “good and safe years of Stroessner´s regime.” Paraguayans remember years when they slept with open windows; many did not realize that the entire country was a jail, tightly controlled by a regime that persecuted, tortured, exiled and killed thousands of people.
In many ways, the Paraguayan media have set the agenda. One possibility is to refrain from reporting on violence that is mere sensationalism. Faced with a daily dose of media violence, Paraguayans begin to see violence as a routine phenomenon that forces citizens to seek strong leadership that promises to control violence, leaving aside some human rights that are not easy to sustain in a country with such a limited experience with democracy.
A May 21, 2007, Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic study declares: “A new report stresses the need for accurate and realistic information on criminality in Paraguay, and criticized Paraguayan politicians and media sources for failing to address the underlying causes of insecurity in the country.” The report, Security in Paraguay: Analysis and Responses in Comparative Perspective, calls for greatly improved statistical information gathering within the National Police and Public Ministry regarding crime, and urges an end to calls for a return to harsher, more authoritarian practices and policies on crime without an analysis of trends in criminality. The report, developed under the guidance of Harvard Law School’s James Cavallaro and Soledad Villagra de Biedermann, encourages support for the full implementation of criminal justice reforms originally passed in 1997-98 that guaranteed rights to a speedy trial, public and oral hearings, and procedural efficiency.
This report is a very accurate description of violence in a country that was formerly under a violent dictatorship, but now experiences powerlessness in the face of criminality in democracy. It is important to compare the amount of violent crimes in the country with other nations in the region. Statistics show that Paraguay is actually safer than other countries, but the Paraguayan people feel a greater level of fear than do their neighbors. This situation could be blamed partially on the media’s lack of responsibility, emphasizing news that sells without taking into account that it is fomenting a sense of insecurity.
On the one hand, lack of professionalism is contributing to the ample coverage of this type of news. On the other hand, the long economic depression with a nonexistent growth rate for the past 22 years has led some journalists to heighten violence with a certain morbosity. If we compare the U.S. media during the Great Depression with the Paraguayan media, we can find significant similarities. When I asked a veteran Paraguayan television journalist about this tendency towards morbosity, he replied: “People tend to feel a little more secure in an insecure world watching what happened daily to other people; this way we entertained them.” This cynical description of journalists’ work is supported quietly by many other colleagues who tend to overemphasize the importance of daily news of violence on television and in newspapers. This is a clear explanation of the immature way in which Paraguayan’s media behave daily without taking into consideration the effect on people who are watching crude violence without any explanation or necessity..
Police radio frequency is connected to the newsroom so journalists can run immediately to cover crimes. Paraguayan police allow monitoring, tending to blame the new Penal Code and judicial system for the increasing amount of crime in the country. Police want to return to the old system that allowed them to capture suspicious criminal suspects and keep them in jail without any rights. “The failure to protect victims of crime and a general sentiment that the state is often absent, in addition to the lack of access to justice, have led to a sense of powerlessness in the face of criminality,” said Soledad Villagra de Biedermann, independent expert in human rights of the United Nations and co-editor of the report in Asunción. “To respond to this problem, policymakers have chosen hasty, sensationalist measures to combat crime. Policies aimed at protecting defendants' rights or addressing the root causes of criminality are dismissed as 'soft' on crime, undermining the important benefits that criminal justice reforms have yielded in Paraguay, including increased judicial efficiency and a reduction in pre-trial detention rates.”
As the April elections approach, security is the number one priority for the Paraguayan people. The lack of effective response to actual and perceived crime has led some voters to consider candidates with demagogue positions, such as General Lino Oviedo, who has even promised the death penalty if he is elected— in spite of the Constitution´s clear prohibition of that kind of punishment.
Paraguay’s media do not engage in substantive coverage of crime or the promises made to combat it. Rather, it is more important just to be at the crime scene and report without taking into consideration the impact on people who watch that report. Media self-criticism about how they are influencing people’s behavior is virtually nonexistent. Another area that is not being covered well is the increased suicide rate. Paraguay records one suicide almost every day, but reporting on that unusual kind of violence in a Catholic country that stigmatizes suicide is another important issue that is not taken seriously into consideration by the media.
The way in which violence is reported is an important element in analyzing social, legal and political conditions in a country. Paraguay could be a very good country case study in which to evaluate how the media play a very naïve role by stressing nostalgia for an authoritarian government without analyzing how this return might affect the freedom of press and expression. The media most likely would be the first victim of that kind of government, and yet they lay the groundwork for the authoritarian government by sensationalizing violence.
Violence is among us; we know many of its causes. Yet I think Paraguayan society in general and the media in particular are beginning to become accustomed to a situation of violence without seeing clearly how to face it. At the same time, there is a growing perception that dictatorship is better because a president with a hard fist will know how to deal with the problem.
There are two ways to run a country: by fear or by hope. Paraguayan people live under fear, and democracy is not showing enough capacity to deal with the problem so its future is weak and dark. The media can do better than to “entertain” millions of people every day by reporting cases from the Trauma Center in Asuncion, without thinking about the effect upon the population.
Benjamín Fernández Bogado is a radio and newspaper journalist in Paraguay. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard, he holds a doctorate in jurisprudence from the Universidad Nacional de Asuncion (UNA). He is a professor at the Political and Social Studies at the National University in Asuncion and a DRCLAS Visiting Scholar in Spring term 2008.