Mabel Rehnfeldt | 2004 Courage in Journalism Award
ABC Color, Paraguay.
In 1986, Rehnfeldt joined the Catholic University as a press consultant. After the fall of Stroessner’s regime, she began working as an editor at the weekly magazine Dominical, a Sunday supplement to ABC Color, a daily newspaper in Asuncion that had been banned by the government in 1984 and then re-emerged as a leading national independent newspaper. She also began hosting a radio program at Radio Primero de Marzo, where she still has a daily broadcast.
In 1994, Rehnfeldt became head of the investigative unit of ABC Color and its website, where her primary beat is corruption in the government. According to Transparency International, a non-profit organization that works to curb corruption around the world, Paraguay is the most corrupt country in South America and ranks as the fourth most corrupt country in the world. Only Haiti, Nigeria and Bangladesh rank lower.
In 1989, an unknown man attacked Rehnfeldt after her articles on a corruption scandal within the police department were published. During the 1990’s, Rehnfeldt reports that she faced harassment, legal challenges and blackmail. In 1996, while investigating a gasoline smuggling ring outside of Asuncion, Rehnfeldt and her driver were chased by a car carrying three armed men.
Pressure on her has increased in recent years. For example, in August 2000, an unknown person jammed and interrupted transmission of Rehnfeldt’s radio broadcast. Over the course of an hour, he broadcast messages threatening to blow up the station and “disappear” Rehnfeldt.
In May 2001, the brother of the Paraguayan minister of Interior posed as Rehnfeldt’s husband and asked for bribes from officials at a government office, promising that Rehnfeldt would stop investigating corruption if he received payment. Rehnfeldt was able to document who this person was and what he had done, which resulted in his conviction and imprisonment. Yet, because of the minister of Interior’s influence, Rehnfeldt and her family still feel threatened and have instituted measures to protect themselves. They have built a tall wall around their home and have installed alarms throughout their house.
Also in 2001, an executive of a petroleum distributor sued Rehnfeldt for defamation after she reported that his company had stolen petroleum belonging to the military. Rehnfeldt won the case by backing up her reports and the executive was sentenced to four years in prison because of corruption.
On May 12, 2003, unknown individuals attempted to kidnap Rehnfeldt’s 11-year-old daughter on her way home from school with her babysitter. Neighbors reported that the daughter and her babysitter had been followed for two weeks and that three unknown individuals had been watching the house for several days before the attempted kidnapping. This incident closely followed the publication of articles that Rehnfeldt co-authored on a sexual abuse and embezzlement case involving one of Paraguay’s leading bishops. (The Vatican later removed the bishop after public protest.) Rehnfeldt does not allow her children to walk to school anymore and she and her husband constantly change the routes they take to and from work.
At the end of 2003, Rehnfeldt began investigating corruption among the government and former heads of the state-run oil company. As a result of her articles, Paraguay’s attorney general is prosecuting the company’s former directors. Rehnfeldt’s investigation also tied former Paraguayan President Juan Carlos Wasmosy to the case. Wasmosy verbally threatened Rehnfeldt with legal action and filed a complaint against her for “defamation and insult,” prompting her editors to change her work telephone number.
In 2003, Rehnfeldt advocated for the reversal of a government decree that requires journalists to register with the government for permission to work, claiming that the decree is unconstitutional.
Mabel Rehnfeldt is the first Courage in Journalism Award winner from Paraguay.