One journalist's musings about the beautiful, bizarre world in which we live
ASUNCIÓN, PARAGUAY – On 21st June, the Paraguayan House of Deputies voted 73-1 to hold a hearing that would decide whether Fernando Lugo should be impeached from his position as president.
One day later, on 22nd June, the Senate voted and Lugo lost his job to his vice-president, current president Federico Franco.
Congress called it democratic impeachment. Lugo called it an “express coup d’état.”
Foreign media jumped on the words “coup d’état” and ran images of the protest in Asunción on Friday evening. Many countries took drastic diplomatic action, with Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner going as far as to pull its Paraguayan ambassador.
Local media reports, on the other hand, have varied. Along with cries of censorship regarding the country’s public television station, there have been reports of deep corruption in some of the nation’s newspapers.
The only time “Paraguay” has been googled more than now has been during major sports events, and the country’s internet presence is growing.
In this war of words, every newspaper line, television image, radio clip, tweet or blog post sharing a slogan or point of view can move the public and change the narrative.
And with so many voices crying to hijack the discourse in Paraguay, the truth of the situation is hard to discern.
Protests and Local Reports
The night of the impeachment, thousands gathered in Plaza Independencia, in downtown Asunción, to protest Congress’ decision. In images circulated around the world, riot police and water cannons pushed people from the government offices after the decision.
By the 23rd June, there were just a handful of protestors left in the plaza. Packing up their blankets and bags, the half-dozen youths occasionally shouted chants, calling for democracy in Paraguay.
Celso Velázquez and Concepción Oviedo were two of those protestors. Both are members of the student movement CREAR. Oviedo said although the movement started with students’ interests in mind, they found the situation too important not to protest.
“The parliamentarians – the senators and deputies – in one day decided the future of the country, and put in place a person who was not elected [as president] by the citizens in 2008,” she said. “And so, they cut the democratic process that started in 2008.”
Velázquez said he started protesting 21st June. He noted that although he does not support Lugo, he supports democracy and believes the process to remove him was undemocratic. “Now, Paraguay is under a dictator,” he said. “It was the opinion of Parliament, not the fruit of popular vote. The international community is not recognising this government, and there could be an economic decline and blockades against Paraguay.”
By 23rd June, most protestors in favour of Lugo’s return to the Presidential Palace were in front of TV Pública, Paraguay’s public television station. There, hundreds of people took their turn in front of the camera during the station’s “Open Microphone” – a program which usually lasts two hours, that ran straight for a couple of days.
Rodrigo Tellez runs the new-media company SEO Paraguay. Soon after the Senate’s decision, he started the website Noticias Desde Paraguay to crowdsource information from various social media. From the site, he broadcast TV Pública’s continuous coverage of the protest.
“When it started, there was a little bit of repression of information,” he says. “[Citizens] were speaking what they were thinking, how they feel about the recent situation, and you couldn’t see that on TV or on any station. [Government] even tried to pull the plug on their energy – they sent the energy company to cut them out. But after a time – thanks to social media – everybody could see what was really happening in the country, and it forced the politicians to put that on air.”
José María Costa is a professor of journalism, information law, new technologies and cultural industries at the National University of Asunción. Now a columnist, Costa has decades of experience in the field as a journalist for the Paraguayan daily Última Hora and a voice on radio. Having reported in Paraguay during Alfredo Stroessner’s 35-year dictatorship, he says he thinks the media today is quite free to report what they want. He says the freedom of media to criticise Congress and the sequence of events is the “most palpable and most conclusive evidence that there is.”
“In the period of transition from 1989 to today, Paraguayan society has recuperated many freedoms,” he says. “One of the freedoms, obviously, is freedom of speech and freedom of the press.”
He says he believes TV Pública was practically in Lugo’s party’s hands, and did not permit opinions and visions contrary to his political thinking. “[It was] the state’s own television station, none other than its own voice criticising the [new] government,” he says. “I would find it difficult to find another situation like it in Latin America. The public television station of Argentina doing this – Cristina Kirchner allowing this at this time, or TeleSUR in Venezuela doing the same – it wouldn’t happen.”
As far as traditional forms of media are concerned, in Paraguay as around the world, the almighty dollar is a driving force in what makes it to the evening news. “What is emerging now is journalistic media that exploits sensationalism, as a mechanism to increase ratings,” Costa says. “They create journalism and communicate with a feeling that is much more sensational.”
The Growth of New Media
Paraguay is one of the continent’s least connected nations. When Lugo became president in 2008 Paraguay had 530,300 internet users – 7.8% of the population – according to the United Nations’ specialised agency for information and communication technologies. Costa says that in just four years, that number has risen to about 20% or 30% of the population.
“It’s a real growth,” he says. “I believe that accompanying this real growth of internet penetration, there was growth in the use of internet for freedom of speech and the expression of ideas, debates, criticisms – expressions in respect to issues of public interest.”
Tellez says there are both negative and positive aspects to more people using social networks for news. As one positive, he says the diversity of viewpoints increased as Paraguay increased its internet usage.
“Everyone was watching TV, and you can’t really watch what’s happening,” he says. “The owner of one channel wanted you to get his point of view, and the owner of the other channel – I say channel, but it’s networks. The same owner is the owner of one channel, one newspaper and many magazines, and they use it in the same way.”
Tellez – who had to study his trade in Buenos Aires due to the lack of available training in Paraguay – also says the internet helped people around the country understand what was going on despite not being in the capital. “They were watching TV and it was Popeye or some canned film, instead of what was going on,” he says.
While representatives from many Latin American countries have been reacting to the impeachment, Argentines have been especially vocal.
Argentine political theorist and professor Atilio Boron said in a recent article that the president’s dismissal was “one of the most blatant acts of fraud in the political history of Latin America,” noting the power of agribusiness, its power in Paraguay and the role it played in Lugo’s impeachment.
He also talks about deep corruption in the newspaper industry, arguing that the nation’s biggest newspaper, ABC Color, among other things “launched an intense campaign prior to the coup d’etat, preparing a political climate that permitted Lugo’s express political hanging.”
“The US embassy, together with the agro-industrial transnationals and the oligarchy, made up the gang that dominated Congress,” he said in the article, published with the Latin American television station TeleSUR. “Lugo realised too late what little democracy there is in the institutions of the capitalist state, which removed him in a tragicomic political show trial, violating with impunity all standards of due process.”
The Argentine daily newspaper La Nación also wrote an editorial about the impeachment/coup on Tuesday, noting that the critical countries are also ones with their own issues regarding democracy. “There is thus an asymmetry between the way the almost unanimous decision of the Paraguayan Congress to displace Lugo was attacked, and the indifference with which the continuing constitutional violations of governments with legitimacy of origin are taken,” the article said.
Costa says he believes the transition from Lugo’s government to Franco’s was through “a democratic process,” and that members of Congress “were elected in the same election as Lugo, and with the same quantity of votes.”
Tellez says he believes international governments also have their own interests in mind when it comes to their coverage of the situation. He noted that Latin American countries with “left-leaning” governments would have a special interest in Lugo’s downfall as his party tends toward what is considered the “left” side of the political spectrum.
“Other countries are a bit worried, because they are run by social parties,” he says, bringing up Argentina as an example. “Now, with this happening here, Cristina Kirchner is afraid it could happen to her in her country. She has a lot of stuff that her politicians could say about her to get an impeachment – easy, easy, easy.”
As different forms of social media take hold in Paraguay, the country will be able to represent itself better in the future. Costa says while there is not yet the depth or power seen in Egypt or Tunisia, Paraguay is on its way.
“Obviously, it’s a process that is going to create force,” he says. “But yes, [the crisis] demonstrates that the seed is there, and the feeling is there, too.”