As news editor for the independent magazine Caretas, Valenzuela battled, and survived, six closings of the magazine by repressive governments. She received multiple death threats due to her critical reporting, including some via the Internet. Valenzuela left the magazine to start a family then returned to journalism with her own television show, which was censured and closed at the end of 1998.
Valenzuela also wrote an expose on President Fujimori in 1998, after which she received threats. Fujimori’s government, she said, does not allow research and criticism from the electronic media.
The Courage Award came at a critical time for her. “It gave me a lot of security and protection, being recognized internationally for the work I did, exposing para-military abuses and defending human rights. The national [Peruvian] press also highlighted the fact that I had won this.” She said the award became “some kind of umbrella that shielded me from violence. I will never forget it.”
When she returned to Peru following the awards ceremonies, Valenzuela continued her investigations, working in both print and broadcast, despite continuing threats on her life. In late 1998, a report she aired on Aqui y Ahora (Here and Now) on the Andina de Television network, caused a special stir because it uncovered illegal arms dealings by the Peruvian armed forces. Shortly after it aired, the owner of the network, Julio Vera, cancelled Valenzuela’s show, citing “financial difficulties.”
Valenzuela said she always suspected Vera had been pressured by Fujimori or Montesinos to silence her.
But even she was astounded when her suspicions were proven correct. After the Fujimori government collapsed in the fall of 2000 and he and Montesinos fled the country, police recovered more than 200 videotapes from Montesinos’ home. He had made them to document his payoffs to judges, journalists, media owners, prosecutors and military officials. One videotape showed the intelligence chief telling Vera that he would get $100,000 each month for two years in exchange for canceling Valenzuela’s investigative TV program.
Vera left Peru to avoid prosecution, but the videotapes have been invaluable in ongoing efforts to prosecute others who received payoffs from the Fujimori government. “These were extremely violent people who actually violated human rights constantly,” said Valenzuela.
While Fujimori remained in power and after she lost her job in television, Valenzuela continued her investigative reporting by directing an investigative website, imediaperu.com, that was owned by a businessman daring enough to challenge the dictator.
Valenzuela remained vulnerable to the last days of the Fujimori regime. After writing a story in mid-2000 for imediaperu.com alleging that the Peruvian intelligence service was undertaking arms trafficking through Colombia’s FARC guerrillas, Valenzuela was again attacked. “They tried to drive me over with a car,” she said. Thankfully, it happened the night before Fujimori’s fall, so Valenzuela was not under threat for long.
After the regime was ousted, she and seven other reporters launched their own website, www.agenciaperu.com, which she described as something of a website “magazine” with original reporting. The reporters also produced a program called Entrelineas for a cable channel, Canal N.
Valenzuela said that changes in Peru have been momentous, if uneven.
“Starting in 2000, we have come back to a democratic system. … It is a very, very important change,” she said. Despite continued problems with corruption, “the rules of democracy prevail and journalists can actually cover the news as in any other country,” she said. “We are safer, in a way.”
Valenzuela and her investigative reporting colleagues have also prospered.
Media owners who had fled Peru after losing fights with Fujimori returned. One of them was Baruch Ibcer, a 1970s émigré from Israel who had been stripped of his Peruvian citizenship after refusing to pay bribes to Fujimori. Ibcer also lost ownership of his TV channel, Frecuencia Latina. After reclaiming his network, Ibcer began rebuilding its talent base.
In 2003, he hired Valenzuela and her website investigative team away from Canal N.
Today, Valenzuela produces and anchors a 90-minute network television show on Sunday nights called La Ventana Indiscreta, a name she said loosely equates to the title of Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller film, Rear Window.
“It’s a political program. We talk about social issues, politics, intelligence issues, sometimes about health and education. And we have political satire,” she said.
The TV contract with Ibcer has been a financial lifeline for agenciaperu.com, “since Internet earnings are not that profitable,” she said.
Valenzuela also continues to make people in power uncomfortable.”Journalists should keep themselves aware of the Power,” Valenzuela said. “Power is always suspicious. Where Power is, research has to be done.”
One recent story that she broke was a catalyst for a congressional investigation. The story dealt with allegations that the wife of President Alejandro Toledo, Belgian-born anthropologist Elaine Karp, was using World Bank money allocated for work with indigenous Peruvians for “an employment agency for those who are active members of her party. They’ve spent $2 million just paying salaries, disregarding the main goal, to take care of all these indigenous people,” said Valenzuela.
Fighting corruption today in Peru is as important as fighting terrorism in the past was, said Valenzuela. “We have to think about it as a very serious problem,” she said.
She still gets emotional when she talks about the corruption that was endemic in the past, including in the media. “It is a source of pride that I was able to actually maintain my belief in democracy and human rights,” said Valenzuela.
Her goal today for her TV show is to make people think. She wants to engage those she considers “the new hope” for Peru, those “who are willing to live by the rule of law.”
With her show ranked in the top 10 on Peruvian TV, she confronts rank and file Peruvians with civil-society choices before them. “I want people to react – and to participate, to help and cooperate and to be part of the every day life of the nation. And above all, for people to try to stop corruption so it doesn’t become an ingrained problem.”
Cecilia Valenzuela is the first IWMF Courage in Journalism Award winner from Peru, followed by Blanca Rosales Valencia (1998).
- Courage in Journalism Awards Awardee, 1993