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Puerto Rico journalists fight for access to Senate

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Journalists have regained access to Puerto Rico’s Senate press gallery after the chamber’s president lifted a four-day ban on members…

Journalists have regained access to Puerto Rico’s Senate press gallery after the chamber’s president lifted a four-day ban on members of the press.

The dispute between the Puerto Rican media and Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz began Thursday when he kicked out reporters and photographers as the lawmakers were in session to discuss the commonwealth’s budget, according to news reports.

At the time, Schatz gave no reason for blocking journalists from covering the discussion but later alleged that a photographer had inappropriately tried to take pictures of papers on his desk, said Oscar Serrano, co-executive director of the Center for Investigative Journalism in San Juan. Schatz did not identify either the photographer or the news organization to which she belonged, Serrano said.

Schatz allowed print reporters back into the chamber Friday and photographers on Tuesday, just as the center and other media organizations and outlets petitioned the Puerto Rico Supreme Court to order him to do so. The Puerto Rican Constitution states the sessions of each house of the Legislature “shall be open.”

Schatz, in a letter to the media on Wednesday, said that a small group of journalists had deviated from the “ordinary and correct behavior” of photojournalists covering the legislature, the newspaper Primera Hora reported. Schatz’s letter said journalists’ credentials should be visible at all times while covering the Senate.

Despite the standoff’s end, Serrano worried that Schatz’s reversal could be temporary.

“It has all the markings of a Band-Aid because he did it not by rules or legislation or regulation; he just sent out a letter saying there are going to be new rules that say you have to have your press identification,” Serrano said.

The media organizations do not plan on withdrawing their petition, Serrano said.

Schatz’s press secretary, Eric Toro, did not respond to e-mail Wednesday afternoon. Toro could not be reached by telephone.

This incident is the second time in a little more than two years that members of the media were barred from a chamber of the Puerto Rican Legislature. In early 2008, the House of Representatives did so for one meeting as it was considering a law that would have affected labor unions.

“It’s hard not to see [the Senate’s closure] as a trend, given that the closure in 2008 was on one bill,” Serrano said. “Overall, it’s part of a trend of secrecy in our government in Puerto Rico. Our organization has been made to file suits for even simple things like death statistics of the department of health.”