Banners, candles and a palpable and heartbreaking commotion began to be seen on the afternoon of 13 May in the Plaza de la Dignidad – formerly Plaza Baquedano but popularly renamed after the social outbreak of 2019, and which is located in the centre of Santiago de Chile – when students from various university schools of Journalism went to the emblematic place, shortly after the news of the death of a young and brave colleague.
The community television channel Señal 3 in La Victoria, where Francisca Sandoval worked as a reporter, confirmed her death on Thursday, after she was shot in the skull while covering the demonstrations during an authorised march on May Day, International Workers’ Day, in a neighbourhood and central artery of the capital city.
The truth is that the whole country was deeply shocked after the journalist was shot in the head while covering the attack on demonstrators that day, which ended with several reporters suffering gunshot wounds and Sandoval being taken to the Emergency Hospital Asistencia Pública, formerly Posta Central, in an extremely serious condition, only to die after 12 days of agony.
The Minister of the Interior, Izkia Siches, who has underlined her support for the Carabineros special forces, regretted what had happened and pointed out that the events showed the need for “greater order”, but her lukewarm statements were very badly received by public opinion – a fact that was evident in the social network indicators – because an urgent presidential campaign promise unfulfilled by the current government of Gabriel Boric, responded to a massive and central demand of the citizens since the social outbreak of 2019, which has been waiting for a reform of the Carabineros which, after the murder of the young mother and reporter, became even more relevant and in dispute with the insistence of the Executive to keep the institution without major changes and its General Director in place, despite the dissemination of community press videos in which police cars could be seen escorting the gunmen who shot Sandoval and two other popular reporters.
The murder of Francisca and the repeated attacks on the press, especially on the free and alternative press covering demonstrations and the actions of police forces accused by various national and international organisations of systematic human rights violations, prompted the Colegio de Periodistas, together with the Chilean Human Rights Commission (CChDH), to file a criminal complaint directed not only against those responsible for the shootings on that fateful day, but also against the director general of the Carabineros, Ricardo Yáñez, to establish his responsibility in the procedures deployed by his subordinates.
The entity indicated that “the Carabineros de Chile are accused of serious negligence and breach of their constitutional and legal duties for not intervening to prevent the serious aggressions committed by certain persons against the victims during the public demonstrations on 25 March and 1 May of this year”, adding that “this failure to act not only violently prevented the victims from being arrested, but also prevented them from being arrested and charged for their actions, not only violently prevented the exercise of the right to freely demonstrate in a peaceful manner and to freely and truthfully report the events, thus violating its own protocols of action and national and international standards on freedom of expression and constitutionally guaranteed rights, but its passivity was a direct cause of the damage to the lives and physical and psychological integrity of the victims and their families”.
Likewise, the CChDH pointed out that the ultimate responsibility for these events lies with the General Director of the institution, who should have been aware of the actions of his forces in control of public order.
CHILE AND THE COVERAGE OF PROTESTS: A HIGH-RISK ACTIVITY
A thorough study carried out by Observatorio del Derecho a la Comunicación, on attacks on the press since October 2019, concludes that news coverage of protests in Chile should be considered a high-risk activity.
Despite the large numbers of attacks on the press and violations of freedom of expression in Chile, it is worrying that the same study points out that this is an “under-representation of the true state of the security crisis of those who practice journalism in Chile”, explaining that “many journalists who are attacked do not report situations of harassment and according to direct testimonies collected by the Observatory this situation is mainly due to two reasons: because police violence against independent, community and alternative communicators is already somewhat naturalised by the victims, and also because of the generalised distrust on the part of independent communicators towards institutions such as the Judiciary, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Forces of Order and Security and the Government”, pointing out that “the victims of the attacks have mainly been freelance reporters and independent media”.
He underlines that “the biggest aggressor against the press are the police officers who act during the protests, who show hostility against reporters who make audiovisual registers of their actions”.
And it is precisely in the face of the phenomenon of information siege and disinformation regarding the popular rebellion in Chile, concerted by the hegemonic media and the authorities, that the independent media, international agencies and alternative reporters have been the ones doing the job, who have been fulfilling the task of informing and registering the systematic violations of human rights, the set-ups, abuses and crimes committed by the Carabineros of Chile, and many times it is the registers of these media and these brave reporters that have been added to legal cases against the corrupt Chilean police.
Just by way of example, and according to data compiled by this Observatory, attacks on the press by state agents in 2019 resulted in 171 victims, 27 arrests and 102 impacts of projectiles, 5 gases, 3 water cannons and 34 other types of harassment, with the regrettable figure of 2 cases of loss of eyesight, in the context of the worst human rights crisis since the end of the dictatorship of former General Augusto Pinochet.
And since then, as the report concludes, the phenomenon has done nothing but worsen and has been taking on dangerous normalisation traits, which is reflected in the latest 2022 Press Freedom Report of the NGO Reporters Without Borders, where Chile dropped 28 places in the world ranking, as well as in all the studies carried out by international Human Rights organisations, and the foreign platforms and axes of support for the victims of repression in Chile, mobilised since October 2019 to collaborate directly with the people who are demonstrating and who have been attacked, violated and persecuted by the State of Chile.
The journalists of Pressenza, an international free and non-violent press agency, have also been brutally attacked in the streets of Chile while covering the so-called “social awakening” or “social explosion” and the consequent process of change in the country, which is today on the verge of a plebiscite to approve a new Political Constitution of the Republic, unprecedentedly drafted by democratically elected representatives of the people.
Arrest of Claudia Aranda, journalist for Pressenza, by Carabineros near Plaza Dignidad
JOURNALISTS AND VICTIMS: MOBILISED TO DEFEND HUMAN RIGHTS
This is why Redacción Chile decided to talk to the Regional Councillor of the Chilean Association of Journalists, National Coordinator of the Team of Overseers for the Right to Communication, and member of the Human Rights Commission of the Chilean Association of Journalists, journalist Vítor Pino, as well as Geraldo Vivanco, a long-time member of an emblematic community radio station in Montreal made up of migrants and asylum seekers from various countries and a member of collectives supporting Chile, as well as the Chile Despertó International axis, formed since 2019 by Chilean men and women abroad.
Also with Claudia Aranda Arellano, journalist and correspondent for Pressenza Chile, who had to leave the country asylum after being brutally attacked by Carabineros, persecuted, tortured and finally threatened with death with the aim of removing her from the streets and to turn off her camera, as her registers often showed police crimes and abuses and several were made available to human rights organisations to support legal proceedings against Carabineros.
We should mention that Claudia is also a central witness to the murder of Mauricio Fredes, who died by immersion after falling into a deep hole in a corner near the Plaza de la Dignidad, as a result of the carabineros in the water car shooting the powerful jet directly at his body – outside of all protocol – and pushing him into the hole, and then discharging all the water from the pond until he was dead.
In the interview, whose video is attached to this article, Víctor Pino clarifies that “the truth is that the National Team of Ombudsmen and Overseers for the Right to Communication was created as a result of the social outbreak, it was created because of the repression of the police forces against the press”, stressing that the criterion in the face of this phenomenon is not to make a distinction between professional journalists and reporters by trade, adding in the criterion “all types of press, because we have had the loss of the eyes of colleagues who work in independent media, photographers, because let us remember that Gustavo Gatica was taking photos when they blew out both his eyes, and let us remember Daniel Labbé, who was arrested in the Plaza de la Dignidad and then a judge ordered him to be placed under local arrest, prohibiting him from returning to that place, a public square”, so, faced with this and other aggressions, “the Chilean Association of Journalists decided to form a team of observers”.
In response to the question, he clarified that not only reporters from the free press had been attacked, but also from the traditional press, pointing out that it was enough to ask “the President of the Chilevisión TV Workers’ Union, who was arrested during a demonstration because he was pushed and his camera hit a policeman, the policeman simply stopped him and we had to talk to CODEPU -Corporación de Promoción y Defensa de los Derechos del Pueblo (Corporation for the Promotion and Defence of the People’s Rights), which is a recognised and emblematic NGO of human rights lawyers with whom we have an alliance, in order to be able to remove him from detention, because it is very difficult to free detained journalists because silence and control of press freedom was exercised there, since the Carabineros, when arresting journalists, managed to remove them from the streets until 2 or 3 in the morning, when the demonstration was over, when the repression against the people was over, so we had no material”.
This was an indiscriminate repression of journalists from different media, despite the fact that the public perception in Chile is that the free press, the alternative press, rather than the big media or the journalists who work for the big media conglomerates, is fundamentally attacked. The recent murder of journalist Francisca Sandoval of Canal 3 in La Victoria corroborates this perception.
“We have to be honest, the traditional media did not send qualified journalists to the places of conflict”, he admits, because “they immediately realised the repression that Carabineros were exercising, with bombs, with water, with pellets, so they immediately took an attitude of preserving their employees, and something that is also understandable for media that only want to inform through (press) releases”, but in contrast, “the independent media, the social media, took their collaborators (to the streets)”.
The question remains as to whether the mainstream media are really not interested in covering the demonstrations, especially after Sebastián Piñera, a few days after the social outbreak of October 2019 and in the midst of the Constitutional State of Exception that allowed him to remove the military to the streets of Chile and when the dead and wounded were beginning to be counted with certainty, summoned them to La Moneda, the government palace, for an executive meeting, after which the media stopped reporting in full.
Faced with this dilemma, journalist Pino prefers not to comment, but he agreed that subsequently the information from the streets and the presence of traditional and formal media in them was basically reduced to international news agencies. “I myself was shot in the leg by Carabineros in 2019, while I was in Chile, by an international agency, which is the Carta Mayor agency from Brazil,” he says.
By way of example, he says that while he was present as a journalist and leader of the Chilean Association of Journalists, duly identified, with clothing and credentials that demonstrated his status as a press professional, at a demonstration “I was controlled eight times in Plaza de la Dignidad, and the colleague from Reuters who worked as a photographer was controlled twelve times. That is pressure on the media. And in this case, we are talking about a leader and a world-renowned international press agency.
Pressenza, as a media outlet associated with the Association of Foreign Correspondents, is generating reciprocal protection mechanisms, explains its director, Pía Figueroa, adding that “we knew about Francisca Sandoval the minute she was shot, through Paola Dragnic of Telesur, that is to say, it is the foreign media, the agencies and also the alternative media, the only ones who are finally on the streets”.
CRISIS OF FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION, INFORMATION AND PRESS: RISKING ONE’S LIFE TO BREAK AN INFORMATION SIEGE
Claudia Aranda agrees, stressing that “there was a before and after when Piñera called the big media conglomerates of the establishment to a meeting at the La Moneda palace. There, from one day to the next, Chile stopped reporting fully on what was happening in the streets, in a situation in which we were facing the biggest human rights crisis since the end of the military dictatorship, so it was a topic of interest for anyone to report on, which is why the foreign media were there, but the national media disappeared, which, for the most part, responded to a duopoly, we all know that, it is a fact of the cause, since beyond the fact that colleagues wanted to report, the hegemonic media, in themselves, as companies, as corporations, followed the discourse and the order of the palace of La Moneda. This was evident, because one day we were all there and the next day only the usual ones, that is, the international press agencies and the free press”.
He points out that “a lot of free press began to be born there, and I’m not referring to free media such as Señal 3 de La Victoria, which has a great track record. I am referring to others that were born out of groups that organised themselves to make registers to defend demonstrators against false accusations or fabrications and human rights violations, and that functioned in that logic, who set up media outlets about the social outburst itself because it was necessary to inform, because it was necessary to break an information siege, and fulfil a social function that was framed in that context”, agreeing that this demanded enormous courage.
“I don’t know how many times I was subjected to the famous Carabineros identity checks, but it was so that I wouldn’t report, not to find out who I was, but so that I wouldn’t register anything, because it was when you had the camera on that they went after you, not even to ask you for your ID card, which was always hanging from your chest, Instead, they would ask you for your identity card, in such a way as to force you to keep your hands busy, to take you away from what you were doing”, he explains, adding that “if it was at night, the carabineros would carry huge spotlights, so that if you turned on a press camera they would shine the light on you to blind you so that you couldn’t record, so what were they hiding? “He mentions more as a response than a question.
But the need and eagerness to know what was and is happening in Chile has not only been a need for information within the country, but also, logically, for Chilean men and women abroad. Geraldo Vivanco, while clarifying that he is “one of the thousands of us who left the country, and now I have been in Montreal for 34 years and will spend half my life abroad”, says that “people here are in their 70s or 80s and never thought or dreamed that this (social outburst) could happen, generated in large part by the youth, by students, and then growing at all levels, but it is a social explosion, and then growing at all levels, but everything we knew at first was through family members and social networks and (alternative) social media, which have saved us from the need to inform ourselves, in contrast to what happened to us during the dictatorship, because then we didn’t even know what was happening two blocks from our homes”.
Geraldo says that from Montreal, Canada, “the day after the outbreak, the social media began to act in search of information”, he says, and points out that “there was no information, or rather information was passed on in a cursory manner”. He says that “to go in search of the truth or to try to complement what was happening in Chile, to understand what was happening in Chile, which for us was a cry of joy, a rebellion in this way (the social outbreak), became complex”, pointing out that the response of support from abroad was something “instantaneous, it was like going to take over the Consulate two days afterwards, there were demonstrations, the folkloric peñas began”.
Chilean groups and organisations abroad, particularly in Canada, have managed to protect “not only journalists, but also activists from environmental organisations, for example. I have heard that more than fifty people have arrived recently”, either seeking time and space for protection or requesting asylum “only in Montreal”.
Faced with this shocking figure, Víctor Pino clarifies that he does not have consolidated data on these cases of international protection. He emphasises that “no, because my frontline work in protecting the independent media requires me to be on the streets, but it also requires me not to ask questions”, in the logic of the safety of people who have had to leave Chile to protect their safety and personal integrity, stressing that “when I don’t ask, it means that I cannot answer and at no time am I lying”.
He added that “I am grateful for all the work done by Geraldo, or by Claudia on the streets of Chile, with whom we supported and helped each other a lot in terms of contacts and lawyers, because we were prepared to continue working until Claudia could, but the truth is that I had to continue on the streets and I don’t ask these kinds of questions”.
WEAK RULE OF LAW ENABLING CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY
Claudia explains that sometimes, for asylum processes, “it is difficult to say where you are, because there is a lot of fear, also because they will somehow hammer your asylum process. I feel very protected here, thanks to Geraldo Vivanco and all his team of colleagues who work in different areas and even from different nationalities and countries to support the cause in Chile, the protection of human rights, to help break the information blockade and report what is really happening in Chile. But I feel very safe here because I also have a very solid case behind me, my case is very public and very solid, but many people don’t have it that way, because if you are not a professional journalist, backed by the Chilean Association of Journalists, or by the Association of Foreign Correspondents, by CODEPU itself, etc., and with a legal record about my trial, I have a very solid case, and with a legal record of my process of police harassment and persecution, let’s say, in a way that protects me, but for example the environmental leaders of Puchuncaví-Quinteros, and there is someone there too, the comrade started practically with his clothes on because unknown people with weapons attacked his house, so how far can these people go is the question, and we have the memory of the dictatorship or information from the dictatorship, that when someone wants to save their skin (state criminals), they can go very far, one does not know”.
The union leader Víctor Pino emphasises that “since the social outburst, since the advance of the ACES (organisation of secondary school students), against the increase in the underground fare, the repression against the media, journalists, communicators, was constant, systematic, and continues, reiterated, to this day”.
“On 29 October 2019, I was shot in the leg. I didn’t know what buckshot was until I looked next to me and there was a young man with a pellet in his chest”, and yet Carabineros continued with the repression and the arrests continued. Let’s remember that less than a year ago, during the removal of the statue of General Baquedano from the Plaza de la Dignidad, they arrested Paulina Acevedo, they arrested a credentialed, registered, working journalist. They arrested Daniel Labbé, and I can tell you that a fortnight ago I was in the streets of Santiago when, talking to officers, talking to Carabineros as a leader, with a blue dungaree covering my chest and my sword and saying “Colegio de Periodistas”, and also with my credentials hanging from my neck, with all that, I saw two (armoured) water-cannon trucks, locking up the journalists, photographers, social reporters, and that was only 15 days ago”, says this leader and journalist.
Faced with this, Victor says that he confronted the Carabineros (see video), and called on them to follow the protocol that governs them with respect to the press. “Carabineros have, through their Organic Law, a Protocol for relations with the media (press), which they have not complied with since day one of the social outbreak, and I can say this with propriety, because when I go out into the streets to defend the media, I later have to ask my partner to put painkiller and anti-inflammatory ointment on my back because of all the beatings I have been subjected to, because when they (carabineros) push me, they (carabineros) hit me to make me move forward”, he says.
It is legitimate then to ask how it is possible that in this new government in Chile, these violations of human rights and these attacks on the press and this police repression have not ended, that things have not changed, that they have not put a stop to those who, in uniform and armed, crush the social movement.
POWER, DISINFORMATION, SOCIAL CONTROL AND IMPUNITY
Victor responds that “the new president and his new government did not change the powers that be in the country. Let’s be honest, the logging companies, the mining companies, the big business conglomerates and their media have continued with the same power since 10 March (change of presidential command), nothing has changed, and the repression has been so great that they have managed to silence the voice of the traditional media”, which even initially questioned Francisca Sandoval in her role as a journalist because she did not have a degree, but Víctor Pino clarifies that “that doesn’t matter, because the Media Law says that she can work as a journalist”.
He adds that “they also managed to blame crime in Chile on foreigners, drug traffickers, the importation of violence and not the innocuous presence of the Carabineros, who did not act to defend the media who were covering a march authorised by the government”.
“The May Day march was authorised by the government, by the authorities. The Carabineros were there to contain the march because that was their job, and they did not take any protective measures”, because that day not only resulted in the death of Francisca Sandoval, but other reporters were attacked and shot, “like Aby, who was shot in the shoulder at the same time as she was being attacked by a jet of water from a Carabineros truck”, he stresses.
So what is going on, are they acting on their own or are they responding to government command? Are these levels of repression and systematic violations of human rights a state policy in the face of a people who are demonstrating? Is there no power in Chile capable of controlling what the Carabineros and their Special Forces, who never respect the protocols, do? This is a valid question.
For Víctor Pino, who recently carried out an exhaustive review of the issue together with Mariela Santana, CODEPU’s chief legal counsel and human rights expert, the analysis shows, without further ado, that “in Chile there is no interest in following any international line or treaty for the protection of the media”, stressing that “when the INDH decides not to bring a case against the state for crimes against humanity, it shows that in Chile there is no interest in respecting international treaties. So it is obvious, and the problem with this is that it is becoming commonplace. We are getting used to this. The Mapuche people have been experiencing it for so long now. Treaties, such as ILO 189, are not respected for them.
In this respect, he concludes that “we are talking about how many treaties that Chile fails to respect and that we have to assume as if it were normal”.
But faced with this sort of “custom” or normalisation of abuses, how can the law be enforced? For Geraldo Vivanco, it is crucial to observe the “lack of commitment by the Chilean state to international, civil and political pacts, that is clear. Even here in Canada, we talked to members of Lawyers Without Borders about the strategy of removing the military from the streets in the middle of the pandemic, because it was not about protecting people from the virus, but about using the situation to silence the social movement”.
By way of context, Geraldo explains that he is “in the province of Quebec, a very supportive province, which in 1973 and 1974 fought hard for the recognition of political refugee status for the first Chileans who arrived afterwards”, and therefore, in view of the recent events in Chile, “any activity we have wanted to do, we have done,” he says, all statements that we have made about Chile and that we have sent, reached over fifty Quebecois organisations, including the strongest, which are the trade unions. Just two of them, have a membership of over a million people,” he said, Clearly one result has been to question the rule of law in Chile, because here everyone understands that the minimum is the right to life, a sensitive issue because here there is a broad awareness of Chile’s recent history, of the coup d’état and its consequences”, adding that from abroad, and particularly from Canada, “two commissions of human rights observers travelled from November 2019 to January 2020” to verify the systematic violations of human rights in Chile and the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the State.
He clarifies that “MP’s from Canada have already presented motions five times on the situation of the human rights crisis in Chile” as a result of the social outbreak, but also “including the fact that in the midst of the pandemic, Piñera began to release from prison military personnel serving sentences for crimes against humanity perpetrated during the dictatorship”, taking advantage of the constitutional state of emergency that the former president declared with the excuse of the pandemic and its restrictions of movement for the civilian population. In short, he explains, there is also clear knowledge in Canada about impunity for human rights violators in Chile.
He adds that “next week there is a trade union congress here, where, among other things, the human rights situation in Chile will be discussed”.
Undoubtedly, the situation of freedom of expression, the right to information, the exercise of news and journalistic work in the streets of Chile is facing an unprecedented crisis in the framework of a democracy and has had irretrievable consequences for those who have taken on the responsibility of reporting the truth and defending these human rights. Persecuted, injured, harassed, tortured, imprisoned and killed. There has been everything among the social reporters who have been victims of police repression.
The crime of a camera turned on to look at the truth in the eye
Claudia Aranda says that “more than anything else, I am grateful to be alive, I want to say it. It’s hard to assimilate the level of risk I took. I was really threatened with death, literally persecuted. I had to start first in Chile and for months I was locked up in a loft, and then Geraldo Vivanco and his support team helped me to get out of Chile.
However, she puts the emphasis on answering herself what her crime was, and concludes that “my crime was the truth, it was a camera turned on, it was being where you have to be, it was looking the truth in the face and exposing it. That was the crime. And that is the reflection I want to bring to you in this interview by way of conclusion”, emphasising that “it is precisely the truth that is being persecuted in the world, not only in Chile, which has undoubtedly become an iconic place for many things, including this, today, but it is a global problem, from what is happening with Julian Assange on down, because it is an international crisis and the aggression is against the truth, and the journalists and reporters who in some corner of the world, in some corner of history, have taken it upon ourselves to report, seek and expose the truth and break the information barriers of the establishment, are attacked and persecuted for this, to the point of risking our lives, our integrity, or being killed”.
The journalists present in this interview agree with Claudia when she reflects that when Francisca Sandoval was murdered in Santiago three weeks ago, “it could perfectly well have been me”, and she relates that as soon as it was known that journalists had been shot “many people who don’t know that I am outside the country immediately wrote to me asking if I was all right”, and then – she says – it is when you understand again “that if I stay in Chile I could effectively be dead and the truth is that I know that I would already be dead, and assimilating that is very shocking for me”.
Faced with this, Víctor Pino stresses that there were four members of the media shot at on May 1st, four media workers – resulting in the death of journalist Francisca Sandoval – and emphasises that “let’s be honest, and it was with the convenience and complicity of the Carabineros”, as there are many clear images of this militarised police force interacting calmly with the assassins and aggressors of the demonstrators.
He insists that “it is incomprehensible that you have Carabineros, armed people, with vehicles, guarding a march, and that reporters who went to cover it are shot, because it is the police who are legally armed”.
He also explains that this is compounded by the phenomenon of disinformation, “because now in Chile there is a campaign of terror against foreigners, because the first news that came out on May Day was ‘we arrested two foreigners who were involved’, but they were two blocks away! And they had nothing to do with the story of the shooting of Francisca Sandoval, let’s be honest”, and concludes that this campaign of terror “the only thing it will achieve is to further divide a country that wants to vote for the “Apruebo” in the plebiscite on the new Constitution of the Republic, which is rejected by the neoliberal right and the forces of economic power and uniformed police, because this will finally change the rules of the game, making it possible for Chile to end a long and horrific history of impunity.