Freedom of speech in the Netherlands and a prison cell in Chile were the main sources of inspiration for the Dutch-Chilean journalist José Zepeda Varas. Now he has been awarded with an honorary doctorate by the University of Encarnación in Paraguay. Mr Zepeda and Radio Netherlands Worldwide were named as major players in the battle for press freedom and dialogue in Latin America.
by Wim Jansen
Mr Zepeda was praised for decades of journalistic effort promoting democracy and the observance of human rights. As head of RNW’s Latin American department, he oversaw the reporting of abuses, interviewed presidents and brought opposing opinions together.
His is the first honorary doctorate to be granted in Encarnación, a fast-growing city on the River Paraná, which forms the border with Argentina.
In his speech, Mr Zepeda said he had been moulded as a journalist by the 2½ years he spent in a Chilean jail during the Pinochet dictatorship and by his subsequent work for RNW. His prison stretch made him realise journalism must be impartial and free from political prejudice. Dutch attitudes towards democracy, human rights and freedom of speech then turned him into a passionate journalist with a microphone for everyone.
Mr Zepeda’s speech was conciliatory in tone, even towards his former enemies.
“It is not acceptable to say that impunity is the price a democracy has to pay for the crimes of dictators. That does not mean I think they should be thrown in jail. Sometimes the truth is enough to reconcile the victims with their oppressors.”