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Governor, News Media Lock Horns in Puerto Rico

June 4, 1991

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon is feuding with Puerto Rico’s news media, which accuse him of trying to muzzle the press, over his refusal to provide details of government operations and expenses.

″As a matter of principle, I don’t want to be pushed around,″ the governor said in an interview. ″I’m willing to stand up and take it - take whatever I have to take - not to be pushed around.″

In protest, the island’s three main TV stations and an all-news radio station have selectively boycotted coverage of his activities.

The latest flare-up concerns an executive order regulating public access to government documents. Hernandez Colon imposed the rules in April after a flurry of lawsuits by news outlets demanding confidential records.

The order requires anyone requesting documents to demonstrate a ″genuine interest″ in obtaining them and gives government agency heads the authority to decide whether the request is legitimate.

The island’s leading newspaper, El Nuevo Dia, obtained a court order temporarily blocking the new regulations.

Hernandez Colon, an urbane, 54-year-old lawyer, has never been entirely comfortable with the press pack.

Some reporters describe him as tight-lipped and standoffish. He complains that they’re often rude and aggressive.

″They will jump on me, put microphones in my mouth, push the cameras on me, and sometimes I have been physically pushed almost to the floor,″ he said in last month’s interview. ″I’ve told them that is no way to relate to me.″

The executive order coincides with a lawsuit by The San Juan Star, an English-language daily, demanding documents on the governor’s extensive foreign trips during the past several years.

The governor did turn over some documents, which formed the basis of a recent five-page expose on his use of stretch limousines and sumptuous hotel suites costing $1,000 a night. But he refused on security grounds to release certain information, including the names of hotels where he stays.

″It’s very consistent with him,″ said Star editor Andrew Viglucci. ″The more he can keep to himself, the better. He’s a very closed-door executive, and he doesn’t like interference.″

Hernandez Colon denied that the Star suit prompted the regulations, noting that they apply only to future requests for documents.

But he said the order was needed to resolve an ″anarchic situation″ in which the government was being bombarded with lawsuits demanding confidential information - and had no guidelines.

The governor’s relationship with the press has deteriorated since he won a second four-year term in 1988 and entered the fray over Puerto Rican cultural identity and self-determination.

In April, Hernandez Colon, whose Popular Democratic Party supports Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. commonwealth, signed a law making Spanish the island’s sole official language.

Although many Puerto Ricans applauded the law as an affirmation of their Spanish heritage, critics saw it as an attempt to drum up anti-statehood sentiment in Congress and sabotage a proposed referendum on the island’s relationship with the United States. Legislation that would have authorized a referendum died in a Senate committee.

Hernandez Colon now routinely limits news conferences to a single topic. He also has restricted information about his foreign travels, sometimes saying which countries he planned to visit but not naming the cities.

On one trip to London last summer, rumors circulated he was having an affair with a woman who worked for a British public relations firm.

The speculation of infidelity was so rampant that the governor’s wife of more than 30 years, Lila Mayoral, was asked by a radio interviewer if her marriage was in trouble. She stormed out of the studio.

Newspapers and TV stations shied away from the story until the subject came up again in May in another radio interview.

In that interview, Hernandez Colon said both he and his wife were deeply offended by the ″malicious gossip,″ but he said it didn’t have anything to do with his new rules on disclosure.

Hernandez Colon said he expected the courts to uphold the regulations because he was only exercising his constitutional right to safeguard sensitive information, such as security-related material.

″If I get hit from all sides, I get hit from all sides,″ he said. ″As long as I believe I’m standing on the right ground, I’ll hold.″

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