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The Financial Times, 5.2.00

CHILE: Censorship comes under the spotlight. By Mark Mulligan in Santiago

Earthquake-prone Chile may have been spared its usual summertime wave of seismic activity, but recent events in the world of art and entertainment are shaking this long jagged strip of a country to its very foundations.

Once happily recognised as perhaps the most conservative of Latin countries, in less than two months Chile has opened its airwaves and cable ducts to the Playboy soft porn channel, elected a twice-married agnostic as its president and watched a beautiful young actress shower on the streets of Santiago.

As if all that were not enough, congress is just one step away from replacing movie and video censorship - under which representatives of the armed forces help decide what is shown - with a standard system of classification.

"As far as the executive is concerned, the Chilean constitution contains some strange anomalies," said Carlos Mladinic, government secretary general and spokesman on censorship reforms, "because the article that deals with free expression ends with the case for cinematic censorship."

The fact that the reform bill last year passed through the lower house with broad cross-party support suggests, according to Mr Mladinic, that Chileans are tired of being told what they can and cannot watch. Even Joaquín Lavín, rightwing presidential hopeful in the recent elections and a member of the conservative Opus Dei movement of the Catholic Church, advocated the reforms during electioneering.

Rupert Murdoch's Sky Television - never a slouch at reading the zeitgeist - last year launched in Chile with the slogan which roughly translated to "We won't treat you like a child". After some debate, VTR, a rival cable TV company, was cleared to offer its pay-per-view soft porn channels as part of the broader service.

A few days later, Chilean film makers, painters and writers - horrified by the prospect of a government led by Mr Lavín - rallied round governing coalition candidate Ricardo Lagos to help him to a second-round victory, after a virtual dead heat in the first. According to many, Mr Lagos, a self-confessed socialist intellectual, reflects the changing times in a country where saints days are celebrated like birthdays, divorce is technically illegal and the average person reads one book a year.

"Lagos is very different from Eduardo Frei (outgoing president)," says Jorge Schaulsohn, liberal lawyer and a former congressman. "He's never been to church, and has no plans to, as far as I know."

If Lagos's arrival at the presidential palace was a little hard to stomach for some, a very different type of structure just around the corner has convinced his detractors that the country really is headed to hell in hand cart.

The casa de vidrio - glass house - a living art installation where passers-by were free to watch actress Daniela Tobar sleep, shower, dress and chat with her friends, created such a stir that its protagonists have gone into hiding. Lawyers for the actress, architect and property owner involved in the partly state-funded exhibit are, meanwhile, shaping up for a precedent-setting court battle with lawyer René Trincado, who sued them for offences under the country's strict public decency code.

Mr Trincado claims the exhibit was an outrage, but the most disturbing aspect for many was the reaction of the hundreds of men who gathered around the house each day in the hope of catching the actress with her pants down. Police had to intervene in one instance when a passer-by was mistaken for the artist and sexually assaulted by hordes of men.

"The glass house demonstrated two things about Chilean society," says Mr Schaulsohn. "The first is that Chilean men never grow out of adolescence. The second is that perhaps we are experiencing a new artistic freedom in this country."

While Chile's liberal left is banking on some sort of "destape", or social uncorking, under Lagos, Chileans' generally timid disposition and easy embarrassment will stop it well short of the wildness of Spain under Felipe Gonzalez.

Relatively weak sales of condoms in Chile, for example, have more to with the shame of buying them than the level of sexual activity. The country's newspapers, which rarely criticise or analyse, have opted for auto-censorship to avoid embarrassing public figures and the powerful families which run business - and the media.

These same families this week were behind the prohibition by the Supreme Court of a free tabloid newspaper, created by Swedish company MTG, which was being distributed in Santiago's underground transit system. The court ruled that the state-owned Metro had no business competing with established newspapers.

Eighteen months ago journalist Alejandra Matus's "Black Book of Chilean Justice", a look at corruption and patronage inside the Chilean judiciary, was removed from the country's bookshops after one of the judges mentioned in the publication successfully argued that it threatened state security.

Another emblematic case was that of Martin Scorcese's controversial "Last Temptation of Christ", released in 1988, which never made it to Chilean cinema screens because the courts ruled that its scene of sexual fantasy defamed the public image of Jesus.

Sergio Garcia Valdés, the lawyer who brought that case on behalf of moral pressure groups, will next month be arguing before the Senate against the elimination of censorship. "For every one victory for freedom of expression, there's a defeat," said Mr Schaulsohn.

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