Congress ‘petrogate’ commission demands journalists divulge their sources

Two of Peru’s most respected investigative journalists are under pressure from a special congressional commission to reveal their sources of phone tapped conversations that revealed an oil concession kickback scheme that rocked President Alan García’s administration.

Pablo O’Brien, an investiagative reporter for daily El Comercio told CPN Radio that attempts by lawmakers probing the illegal phone tapping to coerce him and his former boss, Fernando Ampuero, into revealing their sources “absurd.”

Peru’s Constitution and statutes protest a Journalists professional duty to protect the identities of anonymous sources.

During one of the Commission’s sessions, on Monday, legislators considered pressing charges against O’Brian, as well as Ampuero. Though the motion was not adopted, the Commission has scheduled a meeting with Mateo Castañeda, the state attorney responsible for the illegal wiretapping investigation, to determine if the journalists’ professional secrecy can be forcibly lifted.

“Every person has the right not to reveal their convictions and observe professional secrecy,” El Comercio stated on Tuesday. “Certain politicians must understand that obtaining information is only possible because there is a tacit agreement between the journalist and his source, based on the principle of trust and on the communicator’s respect for professional secrecy” regarding the sources of information obtained in confidence.

Congress’s petrogate commission has already petitioned the Superintendent’s Office of Banking and Insurance to subpoena phone and bank account records for political analyst Fernando Rospigliosi and lawyer José Ugaz to determine if they established any type of relationship with those responsible for the phone tapping.

In October, Rospigliosi, a former interior minister during President Alejandro Toledo’s 2001-2006 government and a longtime opponent of Garcia, said an anonymous person left him an audio CD, which he later delivered to Sunday night investigative news program Cuarto Poder’s TV studio.

Cuarto Poder broadcast the audio recordings of Perupetro Vice President Alberto Quimper and Romulo León Alegría, a prominent member of Garcia’s ruling Aprista party, discussing under-the-table payments conditioned on Discover Petroleum obtaining oil exploration concessions.

According to the recordings, Quimper, Leon and Ernesto Arias-Schreiber, the legal representative of Discover in Peru, were to receive $10,000 monthly in exchange for steering lucrative oil contracts to the Norwegian oil exploration firm.

The scandal, dubbed “petrogate,” led the government to suspend five joint exploration and development contracts recently awarded to Discover Petroleum and state-owned oil company Petroperu. The minister of Energy and Mines, Juan Valdivia, immediately handed in his resignation and only days later, the whole cabinet and cabinet chief Jorge del Castillo resigned. Quimper was taken into custody shortly after he sought refuge in a private medical clinic, and León turned himself in to police in November.

Congress rapidly set up a special commission to investigate the León-Quimper case, as well as other illegal wiretapping operations. Individuals, such as O’Brian and Ampuero, along with heads of private security firms suspected of carrying out the surveillance of Leon and Quimper, have been called in for questioning.

Ampuero, former chief of El Comercio’s investigations unit, was sacked in late October, shortly after he released some of the petroaudios. This apparently did not please the Miro Quesada family, and other El Comercio Group stockholders. Before long, Peru21’s editor, Augusto Alvarez Rodrich, quit in protest under similar circumstances. Peru21 is owned by the El Comercio Group.

Carolina Lizárraga, ex-President of the now defunct National Anti-corruption Office, and Iván Meini, former head of the Office’s investigation unit, are next in line, and scheduled to appear before Congress’s commission on Friday. They allegedly manipulated copies of the petroaudios before they were released.

It remains unknown who carried out the eight-month “petroaudios” wiretapping operation, and no potential suspects — with the exception of Andrick Service S.R.L. — have been tied to the cases currently being investigated. Managed by frigate Captain Erick del Águila Villar as well as retired officers from the Peruvian Navy, the private security firm have been accused of illegal phone tapping and spying by former Foreign Affairs Minister Francisco Tudela.

In Peru, phone conversations can only be surreptitiously recorded by an outside third party with a judicial authorization for investigations on drug trafficking, terrorism, kidnapping or extortion. Possessing wiretapping equipment is a crime.

In July 2000, a Computer Crimes Act prohibiting unlawful access, use, interference or damage to a system, database, or network of computers was adopted and codified in the Penal Code.

And, the Peruvian Constitution sets out extensive privacy, data protection and freedom of information rights. Article 2, for example, states that “every person has the right… to secrecy and the inviolability of communications and private documents.”

The petroaudios scandal is a major issue in Peru, where citizens are all too familiar with illegal wiretapping. The “petroaudio” scandal is just the latest reminder of the 1990s, when surveillance by the government against citizens was rampant during the authoritarian regime of President Alberto Fujimori.

His spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos’ National Intelligence Service, or SIN, conducted widespread surveillance and illegal phone tapping of rival politicians, journalists, business executives, government ministers, and even judges.

Montesinos, who controlled a vast web of corruption, has testified before Peruvian courts that Fujimori ordered the surveillance, and stated that the equipment was purchased with funds from each of the armed forces, as well as the SIN, with Fujimori’s authorization. Sophisticated Israeli phone-tapping equipment was used to monitor telephone conversations, and copies of the conversations were delivered to Montesinos.

Today, the market for private security firms is booming in Peru. Companies, such as Andrick Service S.R.L., provide services mainly to the mining, oil and natural gas industries, most of which are foreign-owned.

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