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Colombian broadcasters say government licensing law is censorship

July 31, 1997

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ The government is using a new television licensing law to censor the media for reports on the drug scandal that nearly toppled President Ernesto Samper, news directors charged Wednesday.

A high court approved a law Tuesday that bans extension of licenses for news programs beyond Dec. 31, 1997, forcing broadcasters to bid for space on two public channels.

Critics say the law will let the government weed out news programs that were tough on Samper during an investigation of evidence the Cali drug cartel donated millions of dollars to his campaign.

``One assumes it’s in a spirit of revenge,″ said Aris Vogel, director of TV Hoy. The news program is owned by the family of politician and former television anchor Andres Pastrana, who was defeated by Samper in a close 1994 election.

Samper, who denies wrongdoing, was cleared by a loyalist Congress last year.

By a 5-4 vote, the Constitutional Court threw out an appeal by television broadcasters that the licensing law, approved by Samper supporters in Congress, violated their rights.

Citing a deal with a previous government, programmers had hoped to extend their 6-year-old licenses to 2004.

Rep. Martha Catalina Daniels, who promoted the law, said it will break up the monopoly of powerful broadcasters such as the Pastrana family and make room for smaller programmers.

As far back as the 1980s, Colombia’s governments were routinely awarding television licenses to political cronies or stripping them from critics of the president, said Daisy Canon, director of the morning program 7:30 Caracol.

``The news programs that have been toughest on the government are taken off the air,″ Canon said. ``That’s censorship.″

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