How Not to Do a Damage Limitation Exercise: Grupo Prisa, El País and l’affaire Alfredo Bryce Echenique

Alfredo Bryce Echenique (born Lima, 1939) was until very recently, a very well-respected Peruvian writer. The author of more than ten novels, he has received various recognitions for literature, including the Peruvian National Literary Prize and the French prize for Best Foreign Novel for his work A World for Julius (1972); and the Italian Grinzane Cavour Prize for Tarzan’s Tonsalitis (2002).

However, in 2007 his reputation took a battering when it emerged that he had plagiarised a number of articles from diverse sources in order to republish them in newspapers and magazines under his own name. The Peruvian Institute for Fair trade and Protection of Intellectual Property (INCEDOPI) prosecuted him for plagiarising 17 articles and fined him a total of 25, 000 dollars. Echenique denied the allegations and claimed that the prosecution was a conspiracy against him as a result of his highly critical opinions on the presidency of Alberto Fujimori.

The scandal died down, as scandals do, only to reemerge this year when it was revealed that the Mexican International Literary Fair of Guadalajara, (Feria Internacional del Libro or FIL in Spanish) had decided to award him their annual literary prize, one of the most prestigious with the Hispanic world, which includes a payment of 150, 000 dollars. The announcement provoked disquiet amongst commentators and academics who had not forgotten the outstanding plagiarism charge against him. Leading the charge were twelve internationally respected academics from various disciplines, who wrote a strongly-worded letter to the FIL, denouncing their decision to give a convicted plagiarist a literary prize. Various indignant op-ed pieces were published in Mexico’s national newspapers and a blogs established to oppose the award.

As a result of the media scandal, the FIL decided to present Bryce Echenique with his award privately and not invite him to the Fair (to be held in Guadalajara at the end of the month), as had been planned. The committee responsible for awarding the prize defended its decision claiming that the award had been given in recognition of Bryce Echenique’s literary corpus and not for his journalism. A letter from a 110 academics of various nationalities was also circulated in favour of Bryce Echenique using more or less the same argument. Those who opposed the award were also accused of organising a “witch-hunt” against the author. The affair appeared to be at an end, and the original critics published an article in which they reiterated their opposition to the award, but announced they would make no further comment.

However, by this time, investigations (most especially the detective work of Fabiola Ramírez Gutiérrez, ex alumni of the prestigious Centre for Economic Investigation and Teaching or CIDE) had revealed that in addition to the plagiarism sanctioned by the Peruvian authorities, Bryce Echenique was guilty of expropriating at least another 17 articles for publication under his own name in various countries in Latin America and the United States. This research further revealed that Peruvian novelist typically lifted his material from the Spanish magazine Jano: Medicina y Humanidades, changing only the author’s name and reducing the number of footnotes. He had even presented one of the plagiarised texts at an academic conference in Argentina.

As a result, Bryce Echenique’s reputation as a writer, the FIL award notwithstanding, has taken a serious blow. He appears to be absolutely furious that his dirty linen has been aired in public. His publishers, Alfaguara, owned by the Prisa Media Group, were also worried by the damage done to his standing by these charges. As a consequence, this week Bryce Echenique was interviewed for the cultural section of the Spanish newspaper, El País, also owned by Prisa. This interview was entitled “Some People Want Prizes all to Themselves. They Can Fuck Off” and included the author’s fervent denial of all charges of plagiarism. Once again he attributed the opposition to his receiving the FIL prize to a political conspiracy and claimed that his opponents were from an extreme right-wing group, jealous of his success. The interviewer, Winston Manrique Sabogal, made no mention of the overwhelming evidence presented (which can be read here), by his critics to prove their allegations.

That the interview was a damage limitation exercise became apparent in the comments section. Here I made two comments in which I alluded to the evidence of his plagiarism habit, argued that the academics who opposed his award were neither jealous (since they are not eligible for this prize) or stooges of some great right-wing conspiracy. I also questioned the reason why a newspaper of El País‘s prestige should print such an interview with Bryce Echenique in which he insults his critics with such misplaced venom. Both comments were deleted within fifteen minutes of making them. In exasperation I decided to make a third comment, taking the precaution to take of screen shot of it as soon as I pressed send. However, I discovered that I couldn’t access my account (cathandrews) and so, opened a new account with another name (dracath). I made the same observations and questioned the need for my comments to be censured. The comment lasted all of five minutes on-line before disappearing into the ether. You can read it here:

Censored!

Has Prisa succeeded with its damage limitation exercise? My guess would be no. I fact, it has had the effect of reigniting the row. The twelve original critics of the FIL have understandably written a letter refuting Bryce Echenique’s claims. On the eve of the International Fair, Mexico’s newspapers are again buzzing with the topic. While it may be true that there is no such thing as bad publicity, and it may be turn out that the scandal boosts Bryce Echenique’s sales, the whole sorry episode has severely damaged the credibility of both the Peruvian author and El País. Bryce Echenique’s blustering and posturing about right-wing conspiracies makes him a ridiculous figure, a Walter Mitty character who appears to believe his own lies. The interview in El País and the heavy handed censorship of its comments section, suggest that neither the newspaper values free speech, or in fact truth, in the slightest. None of these things can be positive for the Prisa Group in the long-run.

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