Newspaper publisher sues governor for coercion, harassment
PUERTO RICO–Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper sued the territory’s governor and seven of his aides in mid-December for violating the paper’s constitutional rights through economic and governmental coercion.
El Nuevo Dia filed the suit in federal District Court in San Juan against Gov. Pedro Rossello and other government officials. The paper seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, as well as an order enjoining Rossello and his administration from continuing the alleged harassment.
The paper had complained for several months that Rossello has applied unfair pressure on the paper in retribution for critical stories it had run earlier in the year. In April, Rossello ordered that all governmental advertising be pulled from the paper. El Nuevo Dia estimated that the advertising loss is $500,000 a month.
El Nuevo Dia also charges that Rossello and his administration have ordered a tax audit of the paper, withheld public records pertaining to public utilities and harassed other businesses owned by the Ferre family, which publishes the paper.
The suit argues that the boycott is a violation of the paper’s free speech rights under the First Amendment, citing U.S. Supreme Court rulings that the government may not withdraw commercial commitments to penalize the exercise of free speech.
The suit also charges that Rossello’s other alleged attempts at harassment violate the paper’s First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
“The issue is a newspaper’s right to publish information and commentary free of retaliation from powerful officials who dislike what the paper writes,” said Luis Ferre-Rangel, the paper’s co-editor, in a press release. “We had no other choice but to file this complaint to prevent further government harassment.”
Although Rossello and other Puerto Rico officials have denied the charges, El Nuevo Dia’s editors say that on several occasions, Rossello’s aides have hinted that more favorable coverage of the government would improve the paper’s standing with the administration.
Puerto Rico Justice Secretary Jose Fuentes Agostini announced in late November that he was investigating the matter, and that he would consider bringing in an independent prosecutor, Publishers’ Auxiliary reported.
The controversy has prompted several press organizations to rally behind El Nuevo Dia. The American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Inter American Press Association have all sent letters to Rossello requesting that he end his “policy of harassment” against the paper.
In late October, the IAPA declared it would send a committee to Puerto Rico to “carry out a first-hand investigation about this situation.” (El Dia, Inc. v. Rossello; Media Counsel: Bruce Sanford, Washington, D.C.)